Mosaic of SJSU and NASA Minds
By Anwyn Hurxthal
SJSU’s quest to solve the big problems of the world also includes the vast expanse of space. The university’s partnership with NASA’s Ames Research Center spans more than three decades and explores the future of human-computer interaction.
How is tech from our ancient past, present and future all connected? It’s hard to find a resemblance between asking Siri to make a call and ancient Egyptian tools we see in a museum, but there is a very clear line drawing the two together — it’s called human factors.
Established as a scientific engineering discipline during World War II, human factors focus on compatibility and performance between humans and machines. Fine-tuning this “fit” between humans and our work tools can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt, with tools and household equipment designed using basic ergonomic and human-use ideals. Today, it focuses on vastly more complicated interactions. Not only does a friction-free human/system experience save us frustration (navigating with your phone), it can save lives (helping air traffic control prevent collisions).
“If you just look at the diversity of the backgrounds of our students in the program, some come from art, some from design, computer science and psychology. It’s truly an interdisciplinary field.”
— Sean Laraway
“Human factors includes anything from an app to a spacecraft and everything in between,“ explains San José State University Psychology Professor Sean Laraway, director of the SJSU Human Factors Program at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “The whole point of our work is to make sure we have a human-centered design process, where we include human abilities and foibles — our faults, our weaknesses and our strengths — in the design process.”
SJSU’s Human Factors and Ergonomics Master’s Degree Program is a leading degree program in California and one of only two in the state that is accredited by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, the leading professional organization in the field. The Master’s Program’s secret sauce lies in its outstanding faculty and long-standing collaboration with the Human Systems Integration Division at NASA Ames. For over 35 years, SJSU researchers and Ames civil servants have worked shoulder to shoulder tackling research at the forefront of human system interaction, aeronautical systems, space flight and human-work fatigue.
“It’s a natural evolution of a long-term partnership, understanding the strengths SJSU has, and what NASA has, and the needs can be met through both sides,” explains Tina Panontin, professor of practice at SJSU’s Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering and former chief engineer at Ames for 20 years. “It’s also unique because it blends human factors on the aeronautics side — where you're talking about crew performance and fatigue, cockpit design, air traffic management — and human-systems integration for space missions. It evolved together.”
Zooming into Silicon Valley, the proximity between the NASA Ames campus and Mountain View, less than 15 miles from the university, facilitates a flow of researchers and easy collaboration that has a far-reaching impact. “It's also largely what the partnership means for SJSU students — we have a lot of students that get brought in to do internships and get the great opportunity to experience NASA,” explains Panontin. In the past 10 years, 15 SJSU students have completed their master’s research in collaboration with NASA scientists.
Did you know?
For over 35 years, SJSU faculty, students and staff have collaborated with NASA Ames civil servant scientists on award-winning human factors research. In the past 10 years alone, the SJSU and NASA Human Factors program team members have collaboratively:
- Produced over 700 joint publications (presentations, workshops, training materials, NASA technical reports, field tests and other scientific products)
- Won or were nominated for 31 NASA awards and won 30 awards from scientific organizations
- Released over 550 pieces of software, including upgrades, enhancements and bug fixes
- Provided over 300 paid student research assistantships to diverse students from college freshman to doctoral candidates
- Filed eight co-inventor patents
- Transitioned 48 SJSU personnel to NASA civil service, including 16 SJSU alumni
The joint research contributes widely to different areas of today’s fast evolving tech. “On the practical side, many of the daily technologies we use actually came from our desire to go to another planet. So many innovations occur here on Earth that serve this purpose,” says Shu-Chieh Wu, an SJSU senior research associate at Ames.
The need for human factors is burgeoning, across every field, industry and nation. What’s so unique about this discipline is that it requires a mosaic of minds to achieve success. Professionals from diverse backgrounds — psychology, sociology, engineering, computer science, biomechanics, industrial design, physiology, anthropology, user experience — come together to contribute varied perspectives as humans harness complicated equipment, tackling increasingly difficult goals like designing self-driving cars or traveling far from Earth.
“There are so many different pathways in this field,” explains Laraway. ”If you just look at the diversity of the backgrounds of our students in the program, some come from art, some from design, computer science and psychology. It’s truly an interdisciplinary field.”
Diverse new minds are forging next-gen human factors, and the applications are incredibly broad — helping humans do more. SJSU and NASA research is investigating human systems integration with cockpits and air traffic control, as well as space mission planning and information technologies. “We think about the humans in the system, not how to change what they do, but to give them tools and information that allow them to be able to take on additional responsibility,” explains Vernol Battiste, ’87 MA Psychology, senior research associate at Ames and SJSU.
Here are insider perspectives from the exciting joint SJSU and NASA human factors studies that are laying the foundation for a successful future of human-computer interaction.
Sonic Jets and High-Altitude Balloons
Connie Brasil, '92 Aeronautics SJSU Senior Research Associate Airspace Operations Laboratory at NASA Ames Research Center
Aircraft cockpits are cool, and engines that power them are even cooler. They inspired Connie Brasil’s early interest in aeronautics. She graduated from SJSU in aviation maintenance and operations, but as an SJSU intern at Ames, her interest quickly evolved into the world of air traffic control, then onto how future air traffic controllers will interface with next-gen vehicles in uncharted, unstructured airspace.
Commercial airplanes normally travel well below 60,000 feet because it’s very difficult to fly in the harsh atmosphere of higher altitudes. But new innovations in flight technologies are now reaching up into higher altitudes, referred to as Upper Class E Airspace — for high-altitude operations and supersonic passenger transport.
How do you include lighter-than-air balloons with supersonic jet booms in the same airspace? Brasil’s research melds today’s air traffic systems with research and forecasts about brand-new vehicles in this underutilized air space.
Imagine Upper Class E airways as complex futuristic air highways combining: slow-moving balloons and airships that float with the winds; solar-powered planes with inexhaustible power for long endurance missions; high-speed Global Hawk surveillance aircraft; reconnaissance U2 aircraft; and supersonic jets trailing explosive wakes.
“We’re trying to get the airspace ready for new vehicles, even before the vehicles are ready,” explains Brasil. “Now more and more start-ups and companies are looking into Upper E airspace. We want to be ready with the flexibility and scalability of systems for the future in air traffic management.”
She adds that as we explore new air transportation frontiers on Earth, we’re developing and interacting with new technologies. “It’s actually diving deeper than just what you see on the screen, but more how the operators feel physically, mentally, and emotionally,” explains Brasil. “That's where the human factors' thumbprint comes in — the interaction between the machines and the humans that have to work with the increasingly complex systems.”
3D Chess in National Airspace
Vernol Battiste, ’87 MA Psychology Education and Outreach Manager Principal Investigator, NASA Ames Research Center and SJSU
Some say it’s like playing a large-scale 3D chess game, but with thousands of lives at stake. Air traffic control may be one of the most stressful jobs in the world: vast amounts of rules to memorize; thinking in three dimensions; complex math calculations; critical communication skills; razor sharp concentration; and above all, the ability to remain cool as a cucumber. Vern Battiste exhibits all these skills, while also helping build the future of air traffic control.
Battiste’s career journey is rich with accomplishments — fighter jet repair, NASA’s first cockpit digital map displays, advancing social justice in the control tower, forging the future of autonomous flight. It was an internship at NASA Ames Research Center while completing a masters in psychology from SJSU that evolved into Battiste’s early investigations on advanced cockpit displays.
With years of experience as an air traffic controller for the United States Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration, he provided valuable insight into improving navigation and geographic orientation for pilots. He helped develop one of the first moving map displays which he and his team presented to Congress, showing what the future of aviation could hold. It was like “a military map of the earth and a way to not get lost,” he laughs.
The ‘conversation’ and information flow between pilots, air traffic control and airborne data is complex. Cockpit and control tower systems display weather, vehicle IDs, route, traffic, flight paths, speed, interval spacing and much more. Battiste and his teams are taking pilot preparedness and problem solving to a new level with systems that address “conflict, detection and resolution,” identifying risks and offering ways to mitigate them for NASA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System Program.
Battiste equates our progress with autonomous tech to a child learning to walk. “At first it's just managing just to stand up, kind of holding on, then moving between objects,” he smiles. “And then, of course, there’s the point where it’s walking.”
He explains that as we explore and develop new technology, there will be challenges, “but as we get all of these new minds working on these problems, then I can see it accelerating toward semi-autonomous and autonomous operations. We’ll develop systems where humans are involved in managing and oversight, for as long as they’re necessary.”
Cassie Hilditch SJSU Senior Research Associate Fatigue Countermeasures Laboratory at NASA Ames Research Center
Like most of us, Cassie Hilditch has a hard time getting up in the morning. “When we first wake up, most of us, we just feel terrible and groggy,” she laughs. “We just look at our phones until we have coffee and we fully wake up.” What most of us don’t have in common with Hilditch is that she’s an expert in sleep and human fatigue.
Hilditch, senior research associate in the Fatigue Countermeasures Laboratory at Ames, researches sleep inertia, alertness and fatigue and how it affects workers, including pilots and astronauts.
“Our research looks at different shift-work patterns,” she explains. “We look at how we can improve schedules and create measures to promote as much sleep as possible and then determine what we can do to help promote alertness once you've had that sleep.”
Wakefulness and alertness are among the hardest things to maintain when you're sleepy, even in critical moments facing flashing screens, dashboards and control centers. “Ultimately, we aim to minimize fatigue, but we recognize that it does occur, so we also focus on preventing fatigue from turning into errors," Hilditch explains.
Light and other “reactive countermeasures” can combat fatigue and help us stay awake. But in critical situations like firefighting, emergency work or space missions, understanding countermeasures can be the difference between life and death. Hilditch’s true interest lies in the more complex situations when sleep patterns are interrupted or can’t be controlled, and what you can do to stay awake, alert and truly effective. Her research links sleep to performance, and ultimately links performance to safety, with humans operating everything from Earth-based machinery to space-bound rocket ships.
Far From Home (33.9 million miles)
Tina Panontin Professor of Practice, Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering Former chief engineer at NASA Ames Research Center for 20 years
Shu-Chieh Wu SJSU Senior Research Associate at NASA Ames Research Center
Tina Panontin’s sweet spot is the art and science of understanding failures. Shu-Chieh Wu focuses on how we pay attention. Together, along with SJSU and NASA researchers, they’re figuring out how to send humans into deep space safely.
As we travel farther away from our home planet, our astronauts will need to be increasingly independent of Earth-based support. Despite our best efforts, various forms of human and system failure are essentially guaranteed. Because signals from Mars can take up to 20 minutes to reach Earth, a call for help from astronauts, and the reply back from mission control, could take too long to assist the crew. Panontin and Wu’s research goal is to make it possible for a crew of four, out in deep space, to access everything they need to solve problems, maintain awareness and survive with limited Earth support. Panontin specializes in how to prepare for problems. Wu focuses on the astronaut's ability to maintain attention.
“With the International Space Station, we've had the luxury of low-Earth orbit (LEO), which allows us to have 24/7 real-time ground support,” explains Panontin. “But we're just going to need to change that paradigm for missions beyond LEO — a crew of four will have to pick up the things that this ground crew of 80 or 100 people have been doing.”
“Extreme Problem Solving II: How Can 4 Astronauts Do the Jobs of 80 Experts” is one of the numerous research papers Wu has co-authored. Following her initial research in human visual attention and eye movements, her focus became human focus itself.
Imagine a tired astronaut constrained in a cockpit filled with screens and hundreds of changing data signals. “The study of attention looks at the boundaries of where distraction occurs, and when it doesn't occur,” says Wu. “If you want to prevent people from being distracted, how do you do that? If you want to get people's attention while they are focusing on something else, how do you do that?”
By understanding how information is processed by controllers and crew, Wu hopes to help design systems that allow astronauts to understand and utilize vast amounts of complex information rapidly, so they can focus on what’s most important and solve problems without relying exclusively on ground support.
“We can engineer around known failure, human weaknesses and fabrication errors. We can engineer equipment to be more robust, to give it a little extra margin if needed,” says Panontin. But, she adds, “It’s not always possible to engineer out every failure or foresee every issue. When we think about resilience and facing unknowns or surprises, that's where humans really shine. Our job is to build the support that will be needed for creative and effective human problem-solving under extreme and novel conditions.”
Students in Action
Nora Szladovics, ’23 MS Research and Experimental Psychology
Gregory Costedoat, ’15 Psychology, ’23 MS Human Factors
Kristina Davtyan, ’23 MS Research and Experimental Psychology
The 35-year partnership between SJSU faculty, students and staff and NASA Ames civil servant scientists provides a unique pipeline of opportunities to Spartans from diverse fields and backgrounds into NASA Ames. Through the SJSU Research Foundation, contractors are employed at NASA Ames, engaging in various research projects led by civil servant scientists. In the past 10 years, 15 SJSU students have completed their master’s research in collaboration with NASA scientists.
After several years working for corporate giants like Apple and Facebook, Nora Szladovics, ’23 MS Research and Experimental Psychology, enrolled at SJSU a competitive edge in Silicon Valley. While completing her master's degree in research and experimental psychology, she was hired as a human factors research assistant at NASA Ames, an experience that provided her with the tools to launch her new career trajectory.
“You need so much to move forward, real experience, here in Silicon Valley, California and the United States — you need all these competitive edges,” the Hungary native says. “I think I found a great support system and all the opportunities I needed at San José State.”
A Northern California native Gregory Costedoat, ’15 Psychology, ’23 MS Human Factors, worked as a researcher during his undergraduate years before becoming a research assistant at NASA Ames, where he worked on sleep inertia and airspace operations projects.
“This program was one of the few that really had a great intersection of human cognition, perception and physiology,” explained Costedoat.
Like Costedoat, with a laser focus on getting close to rigorous research, Kristina Davtyan, ’23 MS Research and Experimental Psychology, became a research assistant with NASA Ames.
“I knew for my graduate program, I wanted something as close to heart science as possible, but still within the domain of psychology,” explains Davtyan. “I'm interested in all applications of human factors and I went into human factor psychology because I wanted to do real-world problem solving that was evidence-based and used hard science.”
The collaborative partnership between SJSU and NASA Ames enabled her to join a research project on autonomous flight at its initial stages. “So as a student, you can imagine how excited I was to get in on the ground floor and work with a senior researcher. It gave me an opportunity to really work outside of my comfort zone and be involved in the very early stages of research, which students are rarely involved with.”
The master’s program and assistant research role position provided Davtyan a crystal clear perspective into the larger context of the work.
“A big thing that came out of this was my larger awareness of stakeholders, industry, partners, and all the moving parts that enable NASA to be a leader,” she explains. “For me, the research has a much bigger context now — I understand the impact on real-world issues.”
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