Tag: Human Factors

Carolyn Duncan: Free Falling

Original story published on College of Engineering Blog, 11/10/2022

Cat suspended in air
Just what is Reactive Balance Ability? And why does it matter? Join us during Husky Bites, to find out!
Carolyn Duncan, Michigan Tech Assistant Professor

Carolyn Duncan shares her knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive Zoom webinar this Monday, 11/14 at 6 pm ET. Learn something new in just 30 minutes or so, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

What are you doing for supper this Monday night 11/14 at 6 ET? Grab a bite with Carolyn Duncan, assistant professor, Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology and Affiliated Assistant Professor, Cognitive and Learning Sciences at Michigan Tech.

Joining in will be Sarah Aslani, Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF) PhD student and a member of  Prof. Duncan’s MTU Balance and Functional Mobility Lab at Michigan Tech, who will share just how balance is studied in the lab.

Falls are a major cause of serious injury and death in our society. So how can we prevent them? 

Sarah Aslani, ACSHF PhD student, Michigan Tech

“We need greater understanding of exactly what affects our ability to regain our balance when we lose it,” Duncan explains. “Not all risk factors affect balance in the same way. There are many unanswered questions, and that’s where our research comes in,” she says.

How do we anticipate falling? And what happens if we are distracted?

“There’s a lot we still don’t understand in respect to balance,” she says. Some major culprits, though: clutter and poor lighting. 

During Husky Bites, Prof. Duncan will explore what is currently known on how we regain our balance, share some things we can do to improve our balance and prevent falls, and discuss her ongoing research on balance control and fall prevention.

We can learn a lot from penguins, says Prof. Carolyn Duncan.

Duncan earned her BSc in Kinesiology and MSc in Occupational Biomechanics, both at the University of New Brunswick, and her PhD in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on biomechanics at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She was a postdoctoral fellow in Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, then taught engineering ergonomics courses at Virginia Tech before joining the faculty at Michigan Tech in 2018.

After obtaining her doctorate in mechanical engineering, Prof. Duncan spent time working as an ergonomist and fall prevention specialist before she became a researcher. Her work has spanned from fall prevention in offshore industries to developing fall prevention safety programs for workplaces. These experiences give her valuable real-world insights in the fall-related challenges people face in everyday life.

Balance control research in Prof. Duncan’s MTU Balance and Functional Mobility Lab at Michigan Tech

At Michigan Tech, Duncan investigates factors that influence successful balance recovery—from lighting, load-carrying, and aging, to cognitive, neurological, and physical disorders and musculoskeletal injury. She also works with the design of built environments for older adults and special populations. 

“My research primarily focuses on the factors that influence successful balance recovery to prevent falls and improve mobility,” she explains.

Her work studying balance recovery in moving environments—such as the wave motion encountered in maritime settings—involves asking questions, such as “would dancers have better balance on a boat?” 

(Prof. Duncan found that while dancers demonstrated significantly fewer stumbling events when on a simulated boat than novices during the first trial, dancers did not perform as well as individuals with offshore experience.)

Clutter + Poor Lighting = Falls, says Prof. Carolyn Duncan. (Okay, we’ve been warned.)

Arriving recently from the warmer climate of Tehran to earn her PhD in Cognitive Learning Sciences in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Aslani has not yet experienced a Houghton winter, or ever slipped on the ice and snow. Thankfully, she is co-advised by Prof. Duncan and Kevin Trewartha, an assistant professor with joint appointment in CLA and KIP. They’re already preparing Aslani for what to expect when the snowflakes start to fly and temperatures dip.

Are wide stairs safer or more dangerous? And what does the “run length” have to do with it? We’ll find out during Husky Bites!

“Sarah has a background in biomedical engineering, and she just started this semester,” says Duncan. “She will be doing her PhD research on factors that influence our ability to recover our balance. I look forward to furthering this area of research with her in the upcoming years. And we look forward to teaching her how to snowboard and ski as part of our Lab bonding time.”

“I was looking for a research project that would cover both of my interests—biology and neuroscience—when I saw Dr. Duncan’s profile on the Michigan Tech website,” adds Aslani. “So I sent her an email. Then, in our first meeting, it really felt right. I knew this would be a place where I’d fit in.”

In the lab, Duncan and her team perform balance control research. Their overall goal: to help improve the lives of individuals in our community.

“Type 2 Diabetes is a big challenge facing many older adults, with devastating effects on balance. However, surprisingly, very little is known about how exercises like Tai Chi may decrease fall risk. My team is excited to start examining how effective lost-cost group exercise programs like Tai Chi, for improving balance and decreasing risk of falls. We’ll be working in collaboration with Dr. Kevin Trewartha and physical therapists Dr. Cameron Williams and Dr. Lydia Lytle,” Duncan says.

“Dim lighting is often associated with falls in the home,” she adds. “We’re currently looking into how lighting specifically affects balance recovery. We hope this knowledge will be used to develop guidelines on optimal lighting in homes and built environments in our community  to decrease risk of falls.’

During Husky Bites, Prof. Duncan promises to offer some takeaways, too. She’ll provide exact details on the best kinds of shoes, railings and stairs to prevent falls. 

“Mountain biking and alpine skiing are my passions, so the Upper Peninsula is a great place to live all year around,” says Dr. Duncan.

Dr. Duncan, how did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

I first got into Engineering when I decided that pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering would best suit my long-term goals of being a researcher in biomechanics. My previous undergraduate and Masters degrees in Kinesiology and Science with focuses in biomechanics and ergonomics had sparked a desire to learn more advanced biomechanical modeling techniques. A PhD in Mechanical Engineering allowed me to learn these advanced biomechanical modeling techniques while also gaining the foundational knowledge in mechanical and human factors engineering to pursue this career.

Hometown, family?
I’m originally from Rothesay, New Brunswick, Canada–about 45 minutes east of Maine. Interestingly, I come from a healthcare and teaching family. My parents were both public school teachers, and my grandparents were all healthcare professionals or engineers. I have one younger brother who is currently an electrician in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

There’s something so adorable about Brady!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’m a member of the Mont Ripley Ski Patrol and Copper Harbor Bike Patrol. I’ve recently taken up Nordic skiing and disc golf. When I’m not outside I love to cook and am an avid indoor gardener. I have a two-year old ginger tabby cat named “Brady the Tomcat,” in honor of Tom Brady (I’m a lifelong New England Patriots fan). I found Brady at Copper Country Humane Society right here in Houghton. 

Sarah, how did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

“I always enjoy chatting with my friends,” says Aslani. “Sometimes when I want to clear my head and not think of anything, I hang out with a friend.”

Growing up, I was always trying to figure out my real passion–some area in which I am really talented, so that I can direct all my attention and power toward it.

I tried out many things, including painting and playing piano. But, they were never enough for me. After getting admitted to the Iranian Biology Olympiad (IrBO) at age fourteen, and then, a year later, to the Iranian’s national Mathematics Olympiad, I started to realize that I may be good at both those fields (biology and math). That is why a couple of years later, I chose to pursue a biomedical engineering degree.

Hometown, family?
Until recently, I lived in Tehran, Iran. It is the capital of Iran. Very crowded, but it is very beautiful, with lots of beautiful countryside spots to go on picnics, like Chitgar Lake. Plus, there are two, three great places to go hiking.

We are a small family. I have a younger brother who also chose the engineering field. My dad is an agricultural engineer. My mum is a biotechnology researcher. 

Any hobbies? Pets? What do you like to do in your spare time?
The first thing is that I love hiking; when I was in Iran I used to go hiking every two weeks.

Hiking is one of Aslani’s passions. She’s excited to get out and start exploring the UP!

Another thing I am crazy about is learning new languages. I learn new languages by watching movies and listening to music. Recently I started learning Spanish. I love Spanish music. I memorized the lyrics and tried them out with karaoke!

And finally, I always enjoy chatting with my friends. Sometimes when I want to clear my head and not think of anything, I hang out with a friend. 


Michigan Tech’s Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences offers bachelor of science degrees in Psychology and Human Factors, along with a Minor in Psychology. We also offer an Accelerated Masters degree in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF), which typically requires only one additional year of course work. Our graduate program includes masters and doctoral degrees in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF).

Questions? Contact us at cls@mtu.edu. And follow us @clsmtu on Instagram and Facebook for the latest happenings.

ACSHF Forum: Grad Student Presentations

The Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences will host ACSHF students Lisa Casper and Betsy Lehman at the next Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors forum Monday (October 17) from 2:00pm to 3:00pm in Meese 109 and via Zoom.

Lisa Casper will present her research titled “Does Design Thinking Support Innovation: Empirical Evaluation

Abstract: Design thinking (DT) is a tool to support team innovation however, few empirical studies have examined it. In this study, we experimentally compared the effect of two approaches for DT ideate brainstorming on the number of ideas generated and the perceived innovativeness of those ideas.  As part of a semester-long DT project, 145 participants comprising 48 teams were challenged to develop an innovative solution for one of 17 United Nations sustainability goals (https://sdgs.un.org/goals).  Half of the teams engaged in a standard DT brainstorming ideation process, while the other half participated in an experimental brainstorming condition. Participants generated ideas and provided subjective ratings of the process and their team’s solution. Ideas were content-coded on several dimensions by two independent raters.  We found that teams in the DT experimental brainstorming techniques condition generated almost 58% more ideas than those in the DT baseline condition in the same amount of time, but their ideas were not rated as more innovative. What these data suggest for innovation and conducting research on innovation will be discussed.

Betsy Lehman will present her research titled Counterfactual Thinking as a Strategy for Questioning a Frame: Experimental Results

Abstract: Understanding how people make sense of situations and question the theories they hold may be critical in many circumstances, from communicating about climate change to improving DEI at work. Questioning a perspective is assumed to be a precursor to changing it (Klein et al., 2007), yet the research on the questioning process is limited. In a previous study, we found that factors involved in counterfactual thinking (Roese & Olson, 1995), mutability of the situation and ease of generating counterfactuals, appeared highly relevant in the sensemaking process. In the present experiment, we tested this effect by manipulating ease of generation and a mutability focus strategy. This research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of perspective shifting to support applications such as programs to reduce implicit bias.

Erich Petushek ranks in top 100 most impactful articles on the ACL

Photo of Erich Petushek, CLS assistant professor

Erich Petushek (CLS) and co-authors received high rankings in The top 100 most impactful articles on the anterior cruciate ligament: an altmetric analysis of online media, recently released by SAGE Open Medicine.

Petushek’s article “Evidence-Based Best-Practice Guidelines for Preventing Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries in Young Female Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” was published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine and has been ranked #16 as measured by the Altmetric Attention Score (AAS). Altmetric tracks the type and volume of online engagement the research has received since published.

The purpose of the research was to evaluate the common and effective components included in Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) neuromuscular training (NMT) programs and develop an efficient, user-friendly tool to assess the quality of the injury prevention programs. This was accomplished by using meta-analytic techniques to develop an easy to use checklist—a human factors tool—to evaluate the effectiveness of ACL injury prevention programming. The article’s AAS was 380 at the time the ranking was conducted in January 2022.

Clinicians, coaches, athletes, parents, and practitioners can use the developed checklist tool to gain insight into the quality of their current injury prevention programs and optimize their programming for future ACL NMT to reduce injury risk.


Erich is an assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences and a member of the Health Research Institute at Michigan Tech.

Alumni Spotlight: Emilee (Philson) Stanczyk

Minoring in Psychology at Michigan Tech led me to find and obtain my dream job. I never knew that I could combine engineering and psychology and turn it into a career. My minor helped me understand how people think and behave, feeding into my work on medical devices that are used by various groups of people. It has also taught me how to interact with diverse personalities and perspectives, serve clients in a global market, and lead my employees toward success. I would not have the career that I have today without my Psychology minor.

Emilee (Philson) Stanczyk, Managing Human Factors Specialist at Emergo by UL

Michigan Tech alumna, Emilee (Philson) Stanczyk had a strong interest in medical technology when she started Michigan Tech in 2012, and knew she wanted to use her math and science skills for medical innovation. As she explored career options within biomedical engineering, she realized that before you design and develop medical technology, you have to first understand who your users arewhat they want and need and how they think and work. That prompted her to add a minor in psychology to her education, opening up a wide variety of career opportunities in the field of Human Factors Engineering. “I quickly discovered that Human Factors is highly regulated in the medical device field and would enable me to use my biomedical engineering skills to develop products specifically for their intended users,” said Stanczyk.

This past week we got a chance to catch up with Emilee and hear how her life after Michigan Tech has been going so far in this alumni Q&A.

Q: With Alumni Reunion 2022 right around the corner (August 4-6), we’d love for you to reflect back and tell us why you decided on Michigan Tech for your undergraduate studies?

A: I knew that I wanted to major in Biomedical Engineering, so I started with schools in my home state of Michigan that offered the major. I was looking for a school that was big enough to have lots of opportunities for me to begin my career and get involved in student organizations, but small enough for me to make connections with my peers and professors. Michigan Tech was that happy medium. Although all of that was what drew me to look at Michigan Tech, it was my first visit to campus that really “sold” me. The campus itself is beautiful but the surrounding area was like no other place I had lived before, and I just knew it was where I would spend my undergraduate years.

Q: You have recently been promoted to Managing Human Factors Specialist at Emergo by UL. What does an average day at work look like for you?

A: In short, every day is different! A lot of my work consists of usability testing where I conduct sessions with representative users who use devices in development so that I can assess if the device is safe to use. This could mean I’m working with surgeons to evaluate a new surgical robotic system, or patients who have a skin condition to evaluate a new injection device. Other projects involve working with clientsmedical device manufacturersto advise them on regulatory strategy, often navigating FDA’s Human Factors requirements for marketing a medical device. In addition to my project work, I serve as a manager to a team of human factors specialists and help guide and mentor them.

Q: It’s evident that you are passionate about your work. Can you tell us a bit more as to why?

A: Knowing that my work impacts individuals on a daily basis is meaningful and is why I do what I do. I know that at some point in my life, I or someone I love, might need to use a medical device, and taking the time to design the devices intentionally, such that they can be used safely and effectively, is so vital in today’s world.

Q: Looking back, can you tell us about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way?

A: My biggest lesson I have learned so far in my career is not to dwell on mistakes. Sometimes a failure seems like the worst thing that could happen in the moment. But often times, dwelling on the mistake is worse than the actual mistake. Accept that mistakes are learning opportunities and although you can’t change the past, you can use it to transform your future.

Q: What do you see for the future of Human Factors?

A: The field of Human Factors is growing and growing and has never been so important in our society. As technology advances and becomes more widely available, implementing Human Factors into product designboth medical and non-medicalwill be imperative to safe and effective use. I see the field growing and more and more jobs becoming available.

Q: You have been of service as a student mentor through the Women’s Leadership Institute and The Chapel Student Ministry. What is the top advice you give to young students deciding on their future education and career?

A: Find what you’re passionate about and what motivates you. Although your career will often be challenging and hard work, it should be something you enjoy doing. Find your “why” for why you enjoy something and use it as your driving motivation to move forward and work toward a goal. Finally, don’t be afraid to change your mind. Life is too short to have a career you don’t love. Go after what you want and make it happen!

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of your career in the human factors field so far?

A: The most rewarding part was during one of my usability tests. I was working with a patient who had a rare diseaseone that limited her life expectancy to a relatively young age. During the session, the patient got emotional talking about her disease and how it has negatively impacted her life. After hearing stories about her experience, we got to talk about how the device in development we were assessing would greatly improve her day-to-day activities and overall lifestyle. She thanked me for the work I was doing and was so appreciative that her needs as a patient were being considered. It was very rewarding to hear first-hand the impact my work would have on that patient population.

Another really rewarding experience was getting to travel to Shanghai, China for a usability test where we were interested in learning how the different techniques taught in medical school in the US and in China might impact the way surgeons use a surgical stapler. It was my first time visiting China, and I really enjoyed that cultural experience as part of my job.

Q: With a background in psychology, you understand the importance of self care. What are some ways you incorporate it into your life?

A: The most important self-care tip I can relay is to set boundaries. I work in a hybrid model where I spend some days in the office and some at home. In today’s modern world, I am usually accessible via phone or email at all times. It’s important for me to set boundaries on my work email and make sure I am not checking it during “off” hours so that there is separation between home and work. I also find that moving my bodywhether it’s a run around my neighborhood, a walk during my lunch break, or time in the gymcan do just as much good for my mental and emotional health as it can my physical health. I also make sure that I spend some time away from technology each week to engage in something I enjoy doing, like cooking, reading a book, or playing golf.

Q: What is next for you on your life journey?

A: Career-wise, I am looking to grow into my role as a people manager, which is something I took on a few months ago. I look forward to opportunities to mentor and manage those who are early in their career.

Life-wise, my husband and I hope to start a family soon and plant our roots in the Chicago suburbs. We bought our first house a few months ago and are enjoying some new projects as first-time homeowners. I also really enjoy traveling and have a bucket list item to visit all of the US National Parks, so I’m hoping to cross some more off in the next few years!


We look forward to seeing our alumni back on campus in August and invite everyone to stay in touch on Instagram and Facebook @clsmtu.

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.