Center of Excellence for Research on Training at Morris Brown College

By Fernando A. Gonzalez, PhD, Director, Center of Excellence for Research on Training
The Center of Excellence for Research on Training (CERT) is a nonprofit research corporation established at Morris Brown College in 1993 with funds provided by a grant from the U.S. Army Research Institute. CERT has two main missions: to conduct research on factors that affect training and to encourage and facilitate the participation of minority students in this field of research.

CERT's Research Mission

Modern weapon systems and the tactics and doctrines designed to incorporate them into military actions are increasingly complex. These systems demand vigilant operators able to make decisions quickly under stressful conditions based on information extracted from cluttered and often incomplete sets of stimuli. Obviously, intensive and extensive practice is essential to develop the cognitive and motor skills required for the proper operation of these weapon systems. However, fiscal, environmental, and safety concerns preclude using actual weapon systems for training purposes except under very limited conditions. The U.S. Armed Forces, therefore, have an enduring interest in developing safe and economical technologies for teaching the complex cognitive skills demanded by modern weapons and tactics.

During the last few years, the U.S. Army has encouraged and supported the development of computer-based technologies to facilitate the training of its personnel. CERT is one of several programs started by the Army to conduct basic research on factors that influence the learning of skills and to develop and test computerized training methods. Research at CERT is mostly psychological, but computer science and software development are integral to our work. CERT is divided into six laboratories that conduct human factors and cognitive science research projects. In the learning and memory lab, investigators are studying mnemonics for faster memorization of different types of material and factors that affect strategic decision making in computerized war games. Researchers in the virtual reality lab conduct visual perception studies using a virtual reality driving simulator. In the firearm simulator lab, investigators are studying the development of good judgment in simulated shoot-don't shoot situations. The multimedia lab is developing a driverse training and testing program. Investigators in the attention and vigilance lab use an eye-tracker/pupillometer to study focusing and scanning during visual search. Finally, in the computerized battlefield lab, investigators develop behavior algorithms for the control of virtual entities in battlefield simulations.

CERT's Education Mission

The U.S. Army is at the forefront of attempts to increase the participation of minorities in professional and scientific careers. Minorities are egregiously underrepresented in the human factors and cognitive science communities. Recent gains in the numbers of minority individuals pursuing advanced degrees have not extended to scientific psychology. Lack of knowledge of the work of scientific psychologists and of career opportunities in applied and basic cognitive research probably accounts for the sparse interest in these fields evident among the more promising minority students who are planning to pursue graduate studies in science. By establishing the Center on the campus of a historically black college, the U.S. Army sought to increase the likelihood that outstanding minority undergraduates would become interested in this area of research and that they could be identified, encouraged, and helped to pursue advanced degrees in cognitive science and human factors.

Every academic year, CERT employs 12 to 15 undergraduates selected from Morris Brown College, and from three other historically black colleges in the Atlanta University Center, to work as research assistants in the various laboratories. These students are usually psychology, computer science, engineering, or mathematics majors. They are typically sophomores when initially hired, and they are expected to maintain at least a B average while working at CERT. The great majority continue to work at CERT until graduation. Project investigators serve as mentors for the undergraduate assistants and help them to develop a good general understanding of the principles and methods of scientific research, to become proficient at doing literature searches, at using statistics and graphics software, and at writing computer programs in at least one language. CERT staff conduct weekly seminars for the undergraduate assistants. The seminars are usually directed by two or more investigators and concern topics such as history and philosophy of science, history of psychology, and scientific method. A given topic might be discussed over several weeks. There are no rules or expectations other than getting the students interested and involved in the discussions. An important purpose of the seminars is to demystify science, and in particular, psychology, and to show that doing research is a worthwhile and enjoyable way to make a living. CERT has funds earmarked for several graduate fellowships. We have agreemens with the School of Psychology of the Georgia Institute of Technology and with the Department of Psychology of Georgia State University whereby selected students interested in training research are extended CERT fellowships to pursue graduate studies at those universities. It is expected that these students will do their master's and PhD research at CERT laboratories. The availability of CERT fellowships is advertised locally and nationally. Not surprisingly, most applications originate locally. Thus far, we have granted graduate fellowships to four outstanding minority students. Three were undergraduate research assistants at CERT. Assuming continued funding in coming years, we will grant several more CERT graduate fellowships.

During the next few years, CERT alone cannot steer enough minority students into human factors or cognitive science research careers to eliminate the imbalance in racial minority representation in these fields. What we can do, and are doing, is to demonstrate that minority undergraduates will, if given the opportunity, become interested in these fields of research and will enthusiastically embark in study programs leading to research careers in scientific psychology.

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