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Spring 2000

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 99 > Article

by Jennifer T. Daly

Learning to fly the plane is just the beginning.
Learning to operate the AWACS' sophisticated computers and radar equipment takes still more time. But learning to make flawless, split-second decisions among a harried crew of two dozen pilots and technicians circling above a war zone well, that's a special challenge in training. And Robert Mahan attacks it with zeal.

"The actual operations the button pushing can be learned rather quickly," said the UGA cognitive psychologist. "What we want to find are ways to deal with complex decision tasks, particularly at the command and control level."

Mahan and his colleagues are studying how Air Force crews make their decisions in the military's premier surveillance aircraft the Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS and developing Internet-based training systems to help future crews make better ones.

"We've seen a shift in burden from the manual control of the workplace to cognitive control over automated systems. That requires decision making and planning and all these different things that are very complex," Mahan said. "So training has had to follow along and kind of reconfigure itself to deal with these new cognitively loaded tasks." Funded by grants totaling more than $1 million, Mahan's team is developing a system that will allow military personnel from all over the world to log in from desktop computers to participate in training exercises.

This Internet-based system has two essential benefits. First, it could reduce training costs substantially; personnel who now have to fly to one central location to train could, with Mahan's program, log in for training from wherever they are stationed. And while it can't replace hands-on practice with real equipment, Internet training would likely reduce the frequency of using real planes, bullets, fuel and simulators, which tally up expensive bills during training exercises.

With joy sticks and desktop computers, the Internet "training kits" would enable military personnel to rehearse complex training scenarios that push their mental capabilities to the limit separating, to some degree, the mental part of the exercise from the mechanics, Mahan said.

Physically located in a computer in the Advanced Human Resource Project Lab in UGA's Psychology Building but accessed in the field through the Internet, the training kits Mahan develops will focus on mission tasks such as refueling, target acquisition, landing and take off. The programs will enable the mission commander to vary the scenarios with such unforeseen complications as a simulated equipment malfunction.

No matter their location, the online trainees will all see the same information and work as a team to solve the test "crisis." Some tests may focus on communication and teamwork, others on the need to process a lot of information in a very short time.

It may sound easy, but developing the training program is tedious and somewhat uncharted territory.

"We can, for example, measure the number of bullets used or the amount of fuel what we call the objective indices and these are important. But certainly they don't uncover or reveal planning strategies or command and control thought processes," Mahan said. "Many more cognitive, much more high-level performance measures, have to be considered."

Measuring right or wrong answers is easy to program in a computer; exploring someone's mind while they are answering the questions is not. For example, when a 16-year-old answers all the questions correctly on a driver's license test, does he really understand the nuances of driving in the pouring rain through the middle of rush hour? A simple yes/no exam doesn't seem adequate to measure that. So how can Mahan evaluate things like decision-making skills and teamwork in computer-based training?

He starts by interviewing experts in the military to catalog the steps in performing a particular military task such as refueling mid-air. Once he compiles the technical check-list the aspects of training that are easily evaluated by a computer program he then grills the instructors about the thought processes required for each task and what thoughts would lead to the best decision during a particular maneuver.

This is where it gets tricky. Experts often have a hard time defining what "good" means. It's somewhat like trying to teach a child how to tie a shoelace. Most adults have been tying their shoes for so long, Mahan said, that at first they may have a hard time breaking down the steps of the process.

"You've learned it so well that you've forgotten. It's organized in your brain in a completely different way than when you learned it. I don't know how I make judgments about the quality of something in the supermarket or assess the quality of a movie I've seen, all I know is that I can make a snap judgment that it is good or bad. That's the problem we have with subject experts," he said.

A senior instructor can evaluate a younger pilot's flight simulation and rank his performance very good, good or poor. Mahan presses for more: What made the landing good?

Even though the student pilot ultimately was successful, did poor communication with his co-pilot and crew suggest that he actually had been at more risk for failure than the "good" technical outcome may suggest? Or was his landing "good" because of his strong communication skills? The individual intellectual reasoning each crew member brings to the group is something Mahan believes can be examined, eventually measured, and taught in a variety of ways.

While their goal is to develop a computer tool to measure cognitive skills, Mahan's team also is interested in using their work to find new ways to improve mental functioning in the workplace. In related research they are examining potential devices that might help crews avert mental errors in military airplanes.

For example, Mahan has found that a simple change in how information is presented on a computer screen can make all the difference to a tired pilot. A screen in the cockpit that displays information as text requires a lot of mental processing; a graphic display or audio cues might offset the pilot's exhaustion.

Building on this, Mahan is exploring other ways to help machines adapt, so to speak, to the people who operate them.

"When you start getting tired, the computer would know. It would know by a number of different things," he said "your reaction time, consistency in decision making which typically becomes poor when tired eye blink times, heart rate."

Mahan recognizes that this type of performance monitoring may seem invasive. But he says our complex technology is beginning to exceed human capabilities and that researchers need to explore ways to adapt equipment to accommodate human factors.

Mahan brings to the table many years of experience working as a civilian on military training development. Several years ago he helped the Army develop a tank simulator at its Fort Knox base. And while his current grant is funding training programs for crews operating the Air Force's monstrous AWACS plane, Mahan said what they are learning about evaluating and teaching cognitive skills such as teamwork and decision making can impact all areas of 21st century job training, both in the military and the private sector.

"It's not only developing training tools, it's developing the theory behind team performance. So research and training are melded together," he said. "You do the research and find out what people are doing, how are they doing it, how are they communicating, what's the benefit of collaborating, and only then are you at the point where you can start training people."

E-mail rmahan@egon.psy.uga.edu or access http://www.psy.uga.ed for more information.

Jennifer T. Daly is an award-winning freelance writer living in Atlanta, Ga. A former staff writer for the Research Reporter, she has a bachelor's degree from the UGA College of Journalism and Mass Communication.


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Airforce pilot trainee