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NMSU psychologist uses new lab to study team knowledge

Teams now are a common sight in many government organizations, companies and industries. Although most managers agree teams are valuable, questions remain as to how to create the best teams and how to train them.



(Top) Nancy Cooke, NMSU psychology professor, looks on while psychology graduate student Erik Zsemlye prepares to run a synthetic task. (Bottom) With an experiment under way, NMSU psychology professor Nancy Cooke observes and records data.

That's why Nancy Cooke, a psychology professor at New Mexico State University, has developed the Cognitive Engineering Research on Team Tasks (CERTT) Laboratory. The CERTT lab helps researchers observe and study a team's knowledge and behavior as team members work through complex real-world tasks. Cooke's goal is to create measures of team knowledge.

Understanding how teams learn and share knowledge can be critical in situations involving emergency medical teams, military teams or teams running nuclear power plants, she said.

Most current cognitive research, the study of thinking and learning, focuses on individuals, Cooke said. "Team cognition is a relatively new field," she said. "There has been very little research on team cognition measurement."

So two and a half years ago she set out to design the CERTT lab. A $296,104 equipment grant from the U.S. Department of Defense University Research Instrumentation Program provided the lab's hardware and software. Research in the lab is supported by a three-year $447,000 U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research grant, and by the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division.

The lab, which was developed by contractor Steven Shope of Sandia Research Corporation in Albuquerque, features four networked participant workstations that can stand alone or be joined in any combination. Each workstation has two unique computer displays; a video monitor; a bank of switches; a keyboard, mouse and joystick, if needed; and headsets that transmit audio from a variety of sources, including other team members, video accompaniment or noise inserted by the experimenter.

An experimenter's station in an adjoining room is mission control for the synthetic tasks in which the participants take part. The experimenter can observe and manipulate the environment of each team member, while simultaneously recording data and keeping a time-stamped log of observations and comments. These data are added to the many that are collected automatically by the equipment.

"The lab is a unique facility in its focus on the cognitive measurement angle," Cooke said. It is flexible, interactive, automated and experimenter-friendly, with a focus on obtaining large amounts of data, automatically summarized for easier interpretation, she said. The task environment also can be manipulated to create many different synthetic tasks.

In one of CERTT's current tasks, three team members must operate an uninhabited air vehicle to take surveillance photos of specified targets. They each monitor unique information, warnings and alarms, and must rely on teamwork and communication to successfully complete the mission.

Another of the lab's experiments tests the results of adding audio or video communication to collaborative writing projects using computers. The effect is similar to team members talking on the phone or video-conferencing, in addition to using group software on the computer.

By measuring the knowledge, behavior and success of each team, Cooke hopes to determine the factors involved in successful teams. For example, if team members have different, yet complementary, views on the task, the team may be more successful than one whose members share the same beliefs and backgrounds. This can be seen in emergency medical teams, Cooke pointed out. The nurse, doctor, intern and anesthesiologist have different backgrounds, but they work well together to save lives.

"If we can find a valid measure of team knowledge, we should be able to predict the performance of teams from that measure," she said.

Finding the optimal measurement of a team's shared knowledge would be important to people interested in team training and selection, Cooke said. That would include the military, the aviation industry and any industry creating groupware, or software used by teams.

"The world has become a complex place with all of its technological enhancements," Cooke said. "In this information age, we all are specialists. No one person can do it all anymore."