Psychological + Brain Sciences

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PASSAGE TO INDIA AND A FUTURE IN FOCUS

On The Cover

The PBS lab may be an incubator for cutting-edge scientific exploration. But it is also a place where future plans are hatched. For PBS major Braden King, it helped pave the way to a new city, a new field, and a promising new profession.

 

In a lab studying the formation of visual object recognition in infants, King brought another kind of object into focus – that of his own future.

 

Last summer King, now a senior, spent six weeks in Chennai, India, a large industrial, multilingual city on India’s southeastern coast with a population of close to 5 million, nearly double the size of Chicago. An Indiana native, King grew up in the tiny town of Centerville, population just over 2,500.

 

This was his first experience living in a city, any city. He was there to work for a nonprofit organization, Pudiyador, which provides after school care for children ages 4-18 living in the extreme poverty of Chennai’s slums. The organization provides educational instruction, as well as care for the children’s physical and mental well-being, in addition to programs that enable their communities to sustain these efforts.

 

King was there to assist the organization by using knowledge he had learned through a PBS course in Human Factors and Ergonomics. This course ultimately sparked his interest in the field of Human Computer Interaction, which led him to pursue this hands-on learning experience in the field.

 

The project entailed working with the organization to develop and redesign the way they use a computer-based collaborative system at each of its five centers, with which they collect and organize relevant information. He hoped to help make this system better suited to meet the organization’s needs. He would also teach English to the kids.

 

With this ambitious project at hand King stepped out onto the streets of Chennai, into what he described as a “big river of cars, motorcycles, and scooters weaving in and out of traffic” and into an experience that was nothing short of “awesome” and “life-changing.”

 

 

 

 

“I realized early on that teachers never see the work. Grades come back to the core team and teachers themselves never get to realize which kids are struggling in what area.”

Psychological Designs

The story begins in the Cognitive Development Lab of PBS professor Linda Smith, where King has worked as a research assistant since May 2014. Under the direct supervision of post-doctoral researcher Swapnaa Jayaraman, a Chennai native, King coded videos from head cameras on infants in a study aimed at understanding the development of visual object recognition in infants and toddlers. (See Machines That Think Like Toddlers? for more on this work.)

 

Last fall Jayaraman taught the course in Human Factors and Ergonomics, which King had taken. Introducing concepts of cognition and memory, the course explores issues of how we act/work in our environment, as well as some of the biomechanics of the human body.

 

The field, as Jayaraman explains it, grew out of a confluence of psychology, engineering, and design. And while, “typically the people in this field have come from engineering, what is often lacking are people with a strong background in psychology. You need to be able to understand how the human mind works before you can say, ‘We can do this or we can change that with our designs.’” Understanding how human beings interact with their environment is key to the field, which seeks to choreograph that relationship to maximum effect.

 

“My students quickly learn that they can’t propose a design without a psychological theory behind it,” she explains. “When it comes to a moment of decision-making of 500 milliseconds, you need to know, ‘How does your brain work? What is the first thing it will be able to process?’”

 

Jayaraman herself received a PhD in Ergonomics from the University of Michigan School of Engineering, and her particular area of expertise – air traffic control – is one in which every millisecond counts. She is now deeply immersed in research on children’s cognitive development in Smith’s lab. She is also president of Pudiyador, the organization in which King worked. It was through her efforts that the project was put in place, and her inner knowledge of the organization enabled her to serve as supervisor and consultant along the way.

 

Swapnaa Jayaraman, post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Linda Smith and president of Pudiyador.

Human Factors

 

When Google develops tools for online collaboration, Jayaraman observes, they have a certain kind of consumer in mind. That consumer is not likely to be a third world citizen working in a multilingual, non-profit setting. “It’s not what the makers of Google Documents are thinking about. They’re not looking at those users.”

 

The project she and King developed was to adapt the Google Documents system – which the organization uses to track children’s home environment, their mental and physical well-being, and academic progress – to the staff and their situation in Chennai. Reading as much as possible early in the summer before he went, King learned various methods for mapping and analyzing the staff’s use of the system. He then spent the first week observing the situation, collecting data, taking screen shots of their work, identifying certain needs, and taking requests, before deciding how he could make it better.

 

“I realized early on that teachers never see the work. Grades come back to the core team and teachers themselves never get to realize which kids are struggling in what area. I set up a feedback report so that teachers would know what to focus on for each kid in each area.”

 

He also addressed the language barriers and places where the risk of miscommunication was high. “Teachers,” for example, “would write notes about the week in Tamil, he explains, which the main IT administrator translates into English and enters into the Google system.”

 

By mapping out the entire flow of information within the organization, he was able to inform the program director and upper management about inefficient processes, overworked employees, language issues, and opportunities for improvement.

 

At the end of his stay, after getting feedback from school staff and videoconferencing each week with Jayaraman, he presented new designs before training each member on how to use them.

 

 

 

With this ambitious project at hand King stepped out onto the streets of Chennai, and into an experience that was nothing short of “awesome” and “life-changing.”

Segue to the Future

 

At a recent noontime talk Jayaraman presented findings from the studies of visual object recognition in Smith’s lab.  She talked about the number and frequency of the faces that dominate the infants’ visual field at different ages. As an example, she mentioned that for her, it was the faces of other lab members, and especially the undergraduate research assistants (who spend up to 10 hours a week in the lab) that would feature most prominently if she were to draw the distribution graph of faces in her own life.

 

In talking about King’s experience, the close-knit enclave of the lab also features prominently. “They are like my family,” she explains. “We get to know each other’s interests and have meaningful discussions about what they want to do in their lives. All of the RAs were interested in the idea of going abroad to study and we often talked about the different kinds of experiences you could have abroad.

 

“We also talked about the different careers in which you could use psychology. Psychology is a segue into so many different fields.”

 

For King the experience in Chennai was a unique segue in his own development, as an experience of another culture, a chance to put his psychological knowledge to the test and lay the groundwork for a new career.

 

Next fall he hopes to attend graduate school in Human Computer Interaction.

 

 

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