Category: Undergraduate

ACSHF Forum: Monday, December 6

The Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences will host speaker Joel Suss (Assistant Professor of Psychology, Wichita State University) at the next Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors forum. The presentation, “Trials and tribulations of doing research with police agencies”, will be from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. Monday (December 6) via Zoom only. Dr. Suss will present stories and insights of his research from a National Institute of Justice grant about police decision making.

Abstract: Come and hear research tales from a National Institute of Justice grant about police decision making. It’s been a real roller-coaster ride. Do you want stories about ethical dilemmas? I have those. Do you want stories of critical equipment failures? I have those too. This study had a training component—so come and hear about the level of compliance we achieved. I will demonstrate the experimental task (i.e., interacting with a video scenario) and then take you through the stimulated recall procedure that I used to probe participants’ underlying cognition (yielding qualitative data). There are no results yet, but plenty of stories about the challenges that the team encountered during the research.

Guest Blog: Virtually Possible (How the Pandemic Forced Us to Rethink Data Collection)

The pandemic’s impacts on our campus research ecosystem are many and varied. In his guest blog, Kevin Trewartha shares how the halt in face-to-face interactions compelled his team to find alternatives with applications far beyond current challenges.

In the Aging, Cognition, and Action Lab, we investigate the relationship between age-related changes in cognitive and motor function and the neurophysiological basis for those changes. Like so many others who study human behavior and physiology, our research relies on volunteers to perform tasks in the laboratory while we record their performance.

The pandemic caused a sudden and unexpected end to all face-to-face data collection, and an astounding pause in the research methods I have relied on for almost two decades. Yet, as is often opined, great challenges bring great opportunities.

Challenge: Face-to-Face Data Collection Paused

Our understanding of human cognitive, motor, social, and physiological function is dependent on our ability to gather data from participants who volunteer their time in the spirit of scientific inquiry. For many scholars, collecting data means bringing participants into the laboratory to perform a variety of tasks in close contact with the experimenters.

In my lab, we study age-related changes in neurophysiological, cognitive, and motor function by testing individuals 65 and older. Collecting data with human participants means working closely with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure that our protocols do not present any significant physical or psychological risk to our participants. As researchers, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure their safety. Any risks to the participant must be minimized and reasonable in relation to the expected benefits and importance of the knowledge to be obtained by the research.

The COVID-19 pandemic suddenly elevated the risk of recruiting participants for face-to-face data collection. Prior to widespread availability of a vaccine, the risk of developing serious illness after contracting the virus meant that it was no longer safe to bring participants into the lab. Data collection initiatives like ours were suspended in labs all over the world as we learned more about the virus.

As the weeks passed, a clear picture emerged about the relative risk of severe illness and death due to COVID-19. Older individuals and those with underlying medical conditions were at disproportionate risk for adverse outcomes. With careful planning and review, the IRB worked closely with researchers to mitigate the risks involved and allow human subjects research to eventually resume. However, work with individuals over 65 years old was deemed too risky for the participant.

On a personal level, too, I was unwilling to run the risk of a participant getting severely sick or dying just because they chose to volunteer for research in my lab. Although we expected the shutdown to be temporary, it ended up being more than 15 months before we could prepare to resume data collection with our most vulnerable participant populations.

One of our current National Institutes of Health-funded research projects involves working with older adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. We are investigating whether subtle changes in motor learning behavior could be a sign of early cognitive impairment. The very same week in March 2020 that Michigan Tech and the State of Michigan recognized the need to change our day-to-day operations, we were collecting data with this high-risk population. Immediately, we recognized the need to pause our data collection — an incredibly frustrating albeit necessary decision, given that we were about halfway through our three-year project at the time.

Having to halt most progress on our funded project for almost as much time as we had been working on it provided an opportunity to refocus on one of the biggest challenges we face in behavioral and physiology labs: How do we collect data from human participants if we cannot meet with them face-to-face?

In fact, this was a problem we recognized. There were already well-known, existing disparities between the types of individuals who participate in research and those who do not. Much of the human performance literature is based on data collected from more urban centers, from people who have the physical and financial means to travel to our labs. Fewer studies tend to recruit rural populations, especially those living in more isolated communities and those who have physical and financial barriers to traveling. We once wrote a grant that included a request for funds to develop and test a mobile (tablet-based) platform for motor learning and cognitive testing. Unfortunately, it was not funded, and the idea was set aside.

Solution: Initiate Remote Data Collection

Although the pandemic levied a devastating blow to our research program, it also provided an important opportunity for us to revisit the mobile testing idea and develop a method to collect data remotely. The development of such technology was beyond my expertise, so we reached out to a colleague in the College of Computing: Robert Pastel, who agreed to collaborate with us on this new project.

At the time, travel was ill advised, so we had some time to work through the development of a web-based app for administering the same motor learning experiments we typically run on our sophisticated equipment in the lab. One of my graduate students was then able to shift the focus of her master’s thesis to testing the validity of this new app with healthy younger and older adults by administering the experiment remotely over Zoom.

There were several added challenges to shifting this focus that we did not anticipate at the time. We grow comfortable with our standard methodologies, and shifting to something completely different takes time. Anticipating hiccups along the way is difficult when you enter personally uncharted waters.

The pandemic imposed great challenges outside of work as well. Sudden losses of child care; sharing remote workspaces with family or roommates; trying to help care for family members who live elsewhere; figuring out how to stay physically active; and managing stress, isolation, fear and ever-shifting public health guidance were struggles we all shared. Trying to manage those challenges while trying to launch a new line of research was daunting, especially while working to stay as productive as we could with our existing projects. Despite all those challenges, we made steady progress and expect to finish our initial remote data collection project during the fall 2021 semester.

We are excited about this new line of research and fully expect to continue exploring remote data collection after the pandemic is over. This new approach is a silver lining to a year fraught with barriers to our research productivity. We also consider ourselves fortunate that it was feasible to shift some of our work to an online platform. Many methods of measuring human behavior and physiology, including some of our own, are simply not possible through remote data collection, at least with existing technology. But as is the case with many aspects of our daily lives, the pandemic taught us to adapt, think outside the box and be resilient.

Additional challenges will arise, even as the spread of SARS-CoV-2 wanes. For human subjects research, it will take time to ramp up data collection initiatives to normal levels. Testing sessions may also be slowed down by the need to practice careful mitigation strategies to further limit the risk of spreading the virus. It also remains unclear what lingering impact the pandemic may have on participant recruitment. Some individuals may be more hesitant to volunteer, especially high-risk populations. Regardless, I am so proud of my students, colleagues, collaborators and clinical consultants for their agility, patience and hard work this past year, and I am confident we will meet any new challenges that arise.

The new directions in our lab’s research program this past year are a testament to the importance of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborations. Without the expertise and efforts of Pastel, our new line of remote testing research wouldn’t have happened. Our interactions during the development process also taught me a lot about considerations programmers need to make when developing apps like this. Collaborations of this sort really start with an informal conversation among colleagues. We have plenty of work to do in this area in the future, but I am excited for a new and somewhat unexpected direction for my research program.

The resilience and adaptability of human subjects researchers will continue to be put to the test for the foreseeable future. This pandemic is not over. We all look forward to a day when we can resume “normal” life again. That day can happen soon, but it requires that we acknowledge the pandemic for what it is — a worldwide public health crisis that does not care about our politics.

Thanks to scientists who have dedicated their lives to developing health technologies, we have access to several safe and effective vaccines that not only prevent people from getting sick and dying, but will prevent the virus from mutating to a point that it evades our immune system defenses and puts us back to square one. When it comes to vaccination, we need to ignore the media, social media, armchair “researchers” and politicians in favor of seeking advice from our trusted medical professionals. As we collectively band together to end this pandemic, we are coming out the other side with new innovations that will make society better.

About the Author

Kevin Trewartha

Research Interests

  • Cognitive Aging
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Motor Learning
  • Sensorimotor Control
  • Memory
  • Cognitive Control

Researcher Profile

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.

Dopamine Dynamics in Adaptive Decision Making

The Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences will host speaker Jeff Pettibone (Assistant Professor of Psychology at Finlandia University) at the next Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors forum. The presentation, “Dopamine Dynamics in Adaptive Decision Making”, will be from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. Friday (October 29) in Meese 109 and via Zoom.

Abstract: Adaptive decision-making relies on a distributed network of neural substrates that learn associations between behaviors and outcomes to ultimately shape and direct future behavior.  These substrates are organized in a system of cortical-striatal loops that are hypothesized to offer unique contributions to motivated behavior. Midbrain dopamine neurons strongly innervate these regions, however the consequences of dopamine fluctuations at these targets remain largely unresolved despite aggressive interrogation. Some experiments have highlighted dopamine’s role in learning via reward prediction errors (RPEs), while others have noted the importance of dopamine in signaling distinct aspects of motivation. The data presented will describe the precise role of dopamine in shaping decision-making during a stochastically rewarded trial-and-error task in rats.

New Faculty Lecture: Briana Bettin, CS and CLS

Dr. Briana Bettin will present a New Faculty Lecture on Friday, November 12, 2021, at 3:00 p.m. in Rekhi 214. Dr. Bettin is an assistant professor in both the Computer Science and the Cognitive and Learning Sciences departments. Her research interests span education, experiential design, and human factors. Her talk is titled, “Facets and Inclusions: Analogy as a Transformative Tool for Navigating CS Curricula.”

Briana Bettin

Abstract: Our increasingly digital society requires citizens to effectively communicate about and with computing technologies in order to thrive. Learning to navigate the digital landscape and computing topics can be immensely challenging. Shifting to “think like a programmer” is often challenging, and why the machine behaves as it does can appear antithetical to “the real world” assumptions students are used to in their daily lives. Coupled with stereotypical notions on the difficulty and societal impacts of computing and programming, students can easily become frustrated and discouraged from learning necessary skills and topics for the fourth industrial revolution.

This talk explores how using analogical representations to convey computing concepts and ideas can transform student relationships with computing material. Tying the “difficult novelty” of computing topics to lived experiences can help machine behaviors become relatable rather than flummoxing. Creative and cultural expressions using analogical representations create further avenues for CS curricular transformation, allowing students to foster their sense of self and community in relation to their computing studies. The lived experiences of students have many angles, and learning computing topics is a path paved with flaws. By transforming curricular dialogues to center students and their existing understanding, we can use these facets and inclusions to transform their experiences learning computer science.

Biography: Briana Bettin’s research blends user experience methodologies with education research to better understand programming students and the impacts of the classroom environment. She is a member of the Institute of Computing and Cybersystem’s (ICC) Computing Education research group.

The Human Factor, Design with the Human in Mind

The 2021 Michigan Tech Magazine is Live! And highlights the Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences’ new BS program – Human Factors.

How can people use technology to improve work, society, and life? Students in Michigan Tech’s human factors program set out to answer that question by studying human abilities and limitations, and how they apply to design. In one of the first undergraduate programs of its kind in the nation, students explore how humans use, interact with, and think and feel about technology, and investigate the roles both humans and machines will play in solving the problems of tomorrow.

“Many of today’s college students will eventually work in jobs and industries that don’t yet exist,” says Kelly Steelman, department chair and associate professor in the Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences. “We intentionally designed the human factors curriculum to encourage students to develop both depth and breadth of skills. Human factors students will take courses from across campus and engage in multidisciplinary, project-based work to pick up the diverse skill sets needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world.”

To read the full story see section: 1400 Townsend Drive, and to learn more about our Human Factors program visit

Psychology Student Tyrell Buckley Named Krampade All-American Scholar

Tyrell Buckley, a senior Psychology student and Michigan Tech hockey player, has been named a Krampade All-American Scholar for the 2020-2021 school year. He is one of nine Huskies who were awarded the honor by the American Hockey Coaches Association. Congratulations, Tyrell!

Find the full announcement on the Michigan Tech Athletics website.

New Chair of Cognitive and Learning Sciences Has Passion for Human Factors and… the Ukulele

David Hemmer, Dean of the College of Sciences and Arts, announced that Kelly Steelman has accepted the position as chair of the Cognitive and Learning Sciences department.

Kelly Steelman

Steelman, an associate professor of psychology and an affiliated associate professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics, had been working as the interim chair.

Hemmer cited her work developing Michigan Tech’s new bachelor’s degree in human factors as one reason he’s happy to see her in the role. “Kelly has done a great job as interim chair, including shepherding the department’s new Human Factors BS degree through to approval,” he said. “I look forward to working with her over the next three years.”

You’ve been working as the interim chair during a time of great change here. From a new university president, to a new college. What have you enjoyed about it?

Some people might view this as somewhat terrifying: to step into a chair position, or really any leadership position, in a time of great institutional change, with a global pandemic and lots of uncertainty in the world and in higher education. But for me, this seems like the best time to be in a leadership position, because you can actually do things and facilitate positive changes. You know, when everybody’s off-kilter, it gets the ball rolling and then you just get to help guide it in different ways. That’s a lot easier than trying to get people who are used to the status quo to take that first step.

You came a really long way to join us in Houghton. Tell us about that.
I came to Michigan Tech following a post-doctoral fellowship at Flinder’s University in Adelaide, Australia. So I traded in the ocean and warm temperatures for the shores of Lake Superior, and a much heavier jacket.
I had returned to the States for a conference where I saw an advertisement for an assistant professor position in CLS. So I went over to check out the Michigan Tech lab poster. I grew up in Grand Rapids, so I was familiar with Michigan Tech and its reputation. And I knew that there was a graduate-level program related to human factors. But, when I walked up to the poster, I saw a group of women standing there, and I thought, wow, that really defies my expectations about Michigan Tech. That was not the crowd that I expected to see.

Susie Amato-Henderson, our former department chair, walked up and introduced herself and then invited me out to lunch with a group of graduate students. By the end of the lunch, I knew I had to apply for the position. I actually ended up extending my stay in the US long enough to be able to interview for the job before returning to finish my post-doc in Australia.

I was thrilled when I got the job offer and luckily managed to convince my wife and son that it was a great idea to move here even though neither of them had even been to the Upper Peninsula and didn’t really know where it was. After I accepted the job, we came up to find a place to live and actually saw a moose on our drive up to Copper Harbor. That was, of course, really thrilling and the first sign that we were moving to a really amazing place!

What do you like about life in the Upper Peninsula?
I love that it is just so easy to get outside and explore. I really enjoy hiking and cross-country skiing on the Tech Trails and exploring new waterfalls and beaches. I’m not a downhill skier but the rest of my family has really gotten involved at Mont Ripley. My wife works in the ticket office and my oldest son is a ski and snowboard instructor. Even my four-year-old has tried out snowboarding and loves the tube park.

I’ve particularly enjoyed getting involved with the Pewabic Community Garden in Houghton and the Keweenaw Roller Derby league. Both were great ways to meet folks with common interests and helped us feel like we were actually part of the local community.

The competition for students is tougher than ever. What do you see as a competitive advantage here?
Most people don’t think of psychology when they think of Michigan Tech. But I am very proud of our program and what it offers to our students. As one example, our psych students have far more opportunities to get engaged in research in our department than they would in other programs. All students take a two-semester research methods course that gives them the opportunity to work in teams to design, conduct, and present their own research studies.

Many students go on to do research with faculty members and really hone their research skills, making them competitive on the job market and also for graduate programs. Our undergraduate psychology program has a great record of students getting into competitive masters and Ph.D. programs.

Our undergraduate psychology program is also flexible by design. In addition to gaining research and internship experiences, we encourage our students to add minors, double majors, join the Pavlis Honors College, and really focus on building a personal portfolio of skills. Many of today’s college students will be working in jobs or industries that don’t yet exist, so it is really important that students can clearly communicate their skill sets to potential employers. We build advising right into the curriculum to help students do this.

What makes you so passionate about human factors in general and what does the study of this discipline offer to Tech students?
I completed two degrees in Aerospace Engineering before discovering the field of human factors. For those who are unfamiliar with it, human factors is the study of human performance, especially within socio-technical systems, and the application of that knowledge to the design of safe, efficient, and satisfying products, workplaces, processes, and systems. For me, pursuing human factors in my graduate studies allowed me to blend my interests in people and technology.

Through the Tech Forward Initiatives of the past few years, we’ve talked a lot about the fourth industrial revolution, the integration of the physical, digital, and social worlds, and the rapid pace of technological change. The problems facing the world today require that we take a human-centered approach and that we understand how people think, feel and behave and how they interact with technology.

Our new human factors major will be great for students that are interested in designing the future and building new technologies, but also really care about people and want to understand why people do the things that we do and why we make the mistakes that we do. A human factors program is a particularly good fit for Michigan Tech as it blends foundational coursework in psychology with courses in systems engineering, human-computer interaction, usability, business, and design. Designing the major was a true multi-disciplinary effort, with faculty from numerous departments and colleges providing input and feedback.

You already mentioned your roller derby involvement. What’s something else people might not know about you?

About two years ago, I joined a local ukulele troupe called The Yooper-leles. One of my colleagues in engineering Engineering Fundamentals, Michelle Jarvie-Eggart, invited me and it was so much fun! We had folks from five years old to probably 85, with a variety of skill levels. I’m still a beginner, but I did get in a fair bit of practice during the stay-at-home order. I’m really looking forward to when we can all gather to play together again.

Congratulations to our graduates!

The CLS faculty and staff are so proud of our latest group of Michigan Tech graduates! We hope that you all find time to enjoy yourselves and celebrate everything that you have accomplished. Please, keep in touch about your future endeavors!

Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors MS degrees were awarded to Anne Linja, Brooke Poyhonen, Kathryn Maki, and Sam Herbert

Psychology BS degrees were awarded to Erin Casey, Kayla Conn, Ellie Hirvi, Bailee Kimbel, Tim Raymond, Elizabeth Sundblad, Eddie Swagger, Ashley VanHandel, and Emily Wisz

Pictured below:

Faculty: Shane Mueller, Elizabeth Veinott, Kelly Steelman, Kevin Trewartha, Samantha Smith, Susie Amato-Henderson

ACSHF MS Graduates: Brooke Poyhonen, Kathryn Maki, Sam Herbert

Psychology Graduates: Eddie Swager, Bailee Kimbel, Kayla Conn