Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Human Factors in engineering

Twenty years later, and I am still hurting; (Jan. 28, 2010)

I returned to the USA in 1986 for a PhD program in industrial/Human Factors in engineering.  It hurts to recollect this non efficacious decision that was hasty, as all my previous decisions were, a split-second decision with no turning back.  Anyway, most of my jobs and positions after graduation were not related to my specialty, a specialty that I am still trying to define and explain to myself.

Luckily, 15 years later in 2001, I had the opportunity to teach at a university in Lebanon, on part-time basis, two courses related to Human Factors in engineering.  That was a golden opportunity to write over 50 professional articles, 25 of which were my way to re-discover what this field of industrial engineering/Human Factors is all about, in this fast evolving technological breakthrough, and transmits its concept.   I thus published on wordpress.com the category “What is that concept of Human Factors in Engineering?

I applied for a Canadian emigration visa in 1990, a year before graduation, but it was denied me: the Canadian consulate in Houston did not interview me at all. After inviting me for an interview the consulate told me by letter that since I have a USA visa then I had to go back home for application or something to that effect.

I left with $5,000 of my own saved money, much devalued by inflation. Again, I had no one to receive me at the airport and had no acquaintances to shelter me. It was the same lonely and frustrating process as my first travel.  It was as if I never learn anything from past mishaps, but I knew my destination this time around, and what to expect to see. There were no internet facilities at the time and no versatile communications.

I stayed two days at the temporary university boarding building.  A bright Lebanese undergraduate student in electrical engineering named Ghassan visited me at the dorm and connected me with a Lebanese graduate student in Environmental Engineering who rented a house far from campus. This graduate student agreed to take me in for a week and I used to accompany him in his car, mornings and evenings.

Ghassan was an undergraduate electrical engineer and ended up obtaining his PhD in the same year of my graduation; he got a job with Cisco in Oklahoma City while I was totally exposed to an uncertain future.

I forgot the name of the Environmental engineer: my memory is the weakest element of my brain, especially in recall. I remember that I aided this student during his PhD project; I connected him with the specialized person in data design and acquisition and then I helped him imputing data for statistical analysis. He insisted on paying me and when I finally asked for $100 for an entire month of work (I was totally broke at the time) he got furious for accepting the money since he took me in for free, 5 years ago for a week.  This is a typical Lebanese testing gimmick for loyalty or whatever you label it; they insist and your role is to continue refusing, but I was not proficient in that custom and abhorred it.

In the meantime, I had contacted the university student foreign office and a lovely structural engineering undergraduate, a Tunisian student named Suhail, agreed to share his university apartment with me.  Suhail loved everything that is Lebanese, food, music and all, but I was not up to his expectations.  Suhail was a bright and caring person; he finished his PhD in no time and wrote an “artificial intelligent” computer program for structural engineers; the program would prompt you with inquiries and at the end it would suggest the proper equation to use for your problem or project.

The notion of artificial intelligence was the rage at the time and I had audited a course on that topic because I could not afford tuition; I read many books on the topic.  I was working four part-time jobs at minimum wages, within university campus, because I am a law-abiding kind of guy.

Suhail got married at the same period with a Palestinian/US girl in Norman and got a son; he did all these things while I was plugging in to get past my General Exam. I think Suhail’s wife name was Wafaa and she helped her parents in a restaurant that specialized in Near Eastern food. I recall that we occasionally had the specialty of the day around lunch time; probably Suhail’s visits were much more frequent.

Suhail aided me greatly in writing the computer program for my computer generated experiment. I started writing the program in Pascal but I was not that proficient in programming and Suhail translated my ideas into C++.  I had audited a course in C++ because I could not afford any tuition, but had to stop coming to class: I thought that I was taking an introductory course in C++ but discovered quickly that the computer engineers were already proficient in that programming language. The funny part was that the team I was added to were gracious enough to deliver me the programming instructions of its final project.

The Dean, who was from India, refused me a grant and Dr. Foote, my former MS advisor, would not support me as I expected of him. I had no choice but to enroll in order to straighten my visa status from business visa to graduate student.  I paid the full exorbitant tuition for the minimum 12 credit-hours and was completely broke by the end of the semester. I had to take three undergraduate courses, two of them I had taken but the third one (Experimental Design) turned out to be the most interesting and very important for my field and for scientific mind.

I settle for the Human Factor specialty within the industrial engineering department because Dr. Purswell agreed to be my advisor next semester, and offered me a quarter scholarships which allowed me reduced tuition fees.  Dr. Purswell was more interested in the health and safety aspects in this field: he had a private company in forensic engineering for work related accidents.

There were not enough graduate Human Factors courses in the industrial engineering department for a PhD program: the human factors field was not well-developed as the other industrial engineering specialties and the university lacked qualified professors in that field. I was lucky to complement my graduate course requirements in many other departments such as psychology, “quantitative psychology”, marketing, accounting, economics, and education which offered me new perspectives and approaches to the human element in all these artificial human made systems.

I enrolled in a couple of graduate courses in the Psychology department and I felt at home; my heart got set on the cognitive aspect of human capabilities and limitations instead of the physical aspects that is known as Ergonomics, and the modeling of the human body versus the functions of the brain.

I had taken many courses in cognitive psychology and various statistical modeling and software analysis programs, frequently used in marketing, business, psychology, and econometrics.  One professor by the name Getty gave me credits for the Pascal programming language, the next semester, when I paid for the course that I had audited and did all the homework and exams.

I was hooked to the cognitive field in Human Factors but my advisor would have none to do with cognition for my dissertation because he was not interested in such a field and it was not in his line of business.

To be fair, Dr. Purswell was more than patient with me and let me write two proposals related to cognition that both were turned down within a year.  I attempted several times to get on teams working on interesting projects but I was turned down on account that I should have security clearances; what? GM requires security clearance for designing a new ergonomically functional board for its cars! Or the other project for selecting a dozen indicators, sort of operation measurement of the mental and sensory responses of individuals for flying military jets.  The project was done and I attended the presentation.  I guess this project is operational in selecting applicants.

Finally, Dr. Purswell had to deliver an ultimatum or he would have no choice but to suspend my scholarships. I was ordered to stop all part-time jobs. I obeyed and within a semester I wrote the proposal.  I then designed the experiment, finished setting up the fictitious chemical lab, and carried out several intelligence testing protocols just to divert the true objective from the over 120 “subjects” whom I enrolled mostly from first year Psychology students: they are required to submit to experiments for credit-hours.

That semester was hectic but a lot of fun. The next semester was the worst of all semesters because I had input thousands of data and read hundreds of pages of computer statistical results and then the gruesome task of writing up my dissertation.

I had Dr. Schlegel in my advisory team and he forced me to use a specialized word processing program, simply because the print was professional and versatile; the problem was that no one could interpret it when I got stuck, except Dr. Schlegel; I had occasionally to wait a couple of weeks to meet with him in order to untangle stupid word processing glitches.

What still hurt, after 20 years, is that I was not satisfied with my thesis.  Not that practical applications are expected from an engineer, but because no one controlled the process of my experiment.  What was initially an excellent design of the experiment that turned out to get out of the designed program.

The analysis would no longer correspond to cause and effect designed experiment and I had to contend with descriptive analyses that ruined all the pride that I had as an excellent scientific mind.

I am still hurting; I am glad that the publishing company for dissertations refused to publish it, because the manuscript had a numbered blank page and I could do nothing about it: I had no money at all. to recopy the entire manuscript. And didn’t care for the thesis to be published anyway.

All scarce money going down the drain and no professional future in the horizon.

I am hurting because I hated academia after graduation, and tried my best to keeping academic life at bay, working on lousy jobs hoping that my “unconscious” depression would subside.

This mental block never let go and I had no support system to get on the right track.  Yes, I wasted my life as a professional, but deep in my mind and my heart I know that I have a better and sounder scientific mind than many professionals that I know, and I am still interested in many fields of study and have the capabilities to untangle the good valid scientific projects from the faked ones.

Human Factors in Engineering (Article #29)

“How objective and scientific are research?”

Friend, allow me just a side explanation on experimentation.  Psychologists, sociologists and marketing graduates are trained to apply various experimentation methods and not just cause and effects designs.

There are many statistical packages oriented to provide dimensions and models to the set of data dumped into the experiment, so that a preliminary understanding of the system behavior is comprehended qualitatively.

Every applied science has gone through many qualitative models or schema, using various qualitative methods, before attempting to quantify their models. However, many chairmen of engineering departments, especially those who have no understanding of the discipline of Human Factors or were never exposed to designing experiments, have a conception that this field is mostly qualitative in nature.

They would ask me to concentrate in my courses on the quantitative aspects such as the environmental factors of lighting, noise, heat and any topic that requires computation or has well defined physics equations.

We have 3 concepts in the title: objectivity, scientific and research that are related in people’s mind as connoting the same concept.

However, the opposite meanings for these concepts are hard to come by without philosophical divergences or assumptions.

If we define science as a set of historical paradigms, a set of concepts, truths, facts and methods that most of them keep changing as new technologies and new methodologies enlarge the boundaries of knowledge, then you might be more inclined to discuss notions with a freer mind.

Could subjectivity be accepted as the opposite of objectivity without agreeing on a number of axioms and assumptions that are not tenable in many cases?  Any agreement in the meanings of objectivity in scientific research procedures and results are basically consensual among the professionals in a discipline, for a period, until the advent of a new paradigm that changes the meaning or orientation of the previous consensus among the professionals.

Could opinions, personal experiences, recalled facts or events not be accepted in the domain of research even if they could be found in written documents but not thoroughly investigated by a researcher? 

So what if you refer to an accredited research article and then it turned out that the article was fraught with errors, misleading facts with borderline results and untenable interpretations?  Would the research be thrown in the dust bin as unscientific or non objective and thus not worth further investigations?

Research in Physics, Chemistry and engineering deal with objects and are related to studying the behavior of the physical nature; these kind of research can arrive to well establish mathematical models because the factors are countable, could be well controlled in experimental settings and the variability in errors are connected to the technology of the measuring instruments once the procedure is well defined and established according to experimental standards.

It is when research has to deal with the variability in the human nature such as in psychology, psychometric, sociology, marketing, business management and econometric that the notions of objectivity, research and science become complex and confusing.

The main problem is to boldly discriminate among research and admit that not every research is necessarily scientific or objective and that a research has an intrinsic value if the investigator is candid about the purpose and nature of his research.

We need to admit that every research is subjective in nature because it is the responsibility of the investigator to select his topic, his intentions, his structured theory, references, fund providers, the hypotheses, the design, the methodology, the sample size, the populations, the data collection techniques, the statistical package, emphasis on either error type I or error type II, the interpretation of results and so on.

By admitting prior subjective environment to a research endeavor, we can proffer the qualitative term of objectivity to the research only and only when the investigators provide full rationales to every subjective choices in the research process.

Every step in the research process is a variation on an accepted paradigm at one point in the history of science and the mixing of paradigms with no conscious realization of the mixing process should set a warning alarm on the validity of the research and the many pitfalls it is running through.

Acknowledging the role of subjectivity in the methodology, the data and its interpretation could open the way for more accurate and flexible judgments as to the extent of objectivity and scientific tendencies of the research.

Article #30 of “What is Human Factors in Engineering?”;  December 27, 2005

 “How objective and scientific are experiments?”

If we narrow this article to the statistical analysis of experiments and without going into details suffice us to mention a few controversies.  First, let us do a chronology of the various paradigms in statistics and statistical algorithms.  From a European perspective Pascal is believed to have started probability theory in1654.

LaPlace and Legendre contributed to the Least-Squares algorithm for how to fit a model to data (1750-1810)

Gauss developed the geometry and algebra of the multivariate normal distribution (1800’s)

Galton studied regression between two variables (1885) and Pearson the correlation coefficient in 1895.

Fisher, Snedecor and Sheffe concurrently worked on experimental design and analysis of variance algorithm (ANOVA) to statistically test the population distribution under the assumptions of normality in the 1920’s.

The data analyses of non distribution base samples to fit models to data showing structural features were developed by Thurstone in Factor Analysis, by Young and Householder (1935) in Multidimensional scaling and Cluster analysis algorithms.

Joreskog, K. G developed in 1973 the algorithm of a general method for estimating a linear structural relational equation labeled LISREL that analyses the relationships among latent variables linked to operationalized indicators. This general method considers as special cases path analysis recursive or non recursive as well as Factors analysis.

John Tukey and Mosteller concentrated on studying exploratory data analysis to fit mathematical and geometric models to data showing both structural and residual, and thus complementing confirmatory or inferential analyses.

There are divergent paradigms in the following concepts:  first, the suitability of data measurements according to measurement theory versus the distribution properties of the variable of interest (S. S. Stevens versus I. R. Savage in the 60’s); second, the need to investigate real world data prior to applying any statistical package (data snooping) so that if you perform serious detective work on the data and torture it long enough it will confess and open many ways to understand its underlying behavior (John Tukey); thus increased emphasis on graphs of individual data points and plotting to investigate the preliminary screening so as to ensure that the summary statistics selected are truly relevant to the data at hand. 

Third, the application of the Bayesian approach from the consumer or decision maker viewpoint which provide the final probability against evidence instead of the investigator standard acceptance of a p-value to rejecting a hypothesis (read the “Illusion of Objectivity” by James Berger and Donald Berry, 1988).

Fourth, the selection of an investigator for a statistical package that he is familiar with instead of the appropriate statistics for the research in question;  The acceptance of untenable assumptions on population distributions and computing unrealistic parameters simply because the investigator is not trained to understanding or interpreting alternative statistical methods of nonparametric or distribution freer population methods.

Fifth, there are examples of investigators adopting explanatory statistical packages to torture data into divulging confusing causative variables while, in fact, the science is already well established in the domain to specifically determine exhaustively the causative factors simply because the investigator is not versed in mathematics or physics (“Tom Swift and his electric factor analysis machine by J. Scott Armstrong, 1967).

Sixth, there is a need to the “mathematization of behavioral sciences” (Skelum, 1969) which involves the development of mathematically stated theories leading to quantitative predictions of behavior and to derivation from the axioms of the theory of a multitude of empirically testable predictions. Thus, instead of testing verbal model as to the null hypothesis, an adequate mathematical model account for both variability and regularity in behavior and the appropriate statistical model is implied by the axioms of the model itself.  Another advantage is that attention is turned to measuring goodness of fit, range of phenomena handled by the model and ability to generating counterintuitive predictions.

This discussion is an attempt to emphasize the concept of experimentation as a structured theory and that the current easy and cheap computational potentials should be subservient to the theory so that data are transformed to answer definite and clear questions.  The Human Factors practitioner, whom should be multidisciplinary in order to master the human and physical sciences, is hard hit by the need of performing complex scientific experiments involving human subjects and yet required to yield practical recommendations for the applied engineering fields.

No wonder Human Factors professionals are confused in their purposes and ill appreciated by the other discipline unless a hybrid kind of scientists are generated from a structural combination of engineering discipline and modern experimental methods and statistical algorithms. 

However, Human Factors engineers who have an undergraduate engineering discipline and a higher degree in experimental research and statistical analyses training can be better positioned to handle research involving mathematical modeling of theories in sciences.

The fixed mindedness in adolescents reminds us of the mind fix of old people with the assumption that the mind has the potential flexibility to grow while young.

You may look young masking and old mind or look older and exhibiting a younger mind; it is your choice how much time and energy you are willing to invest for acquiring knowledge.

Something about my profession (#53)

Introspection within introspection

I started this chapter in September 13, 2007 as a personal introspection concerning my profession which generated later into a life introspection; I am basically editing this chapter.  Personal rambling set aside, I presently focus on the core of the subject that started my introspection into the industrial and human factors engineering. I have already written over 50 articles and later published them on wordpress.com in the category “Professional articles”.  Thus, this chapter should be technically redundant, but it is for my benefit that I am recapitulating the story.

This chapter is sort of introspection within introspection.  I did not attempt to copy/paste sections from what I had published because I want to discover how my positions and inclinations have changed since then:  It is very revealing to compare texts after a lapse of time and ponder what statements were fundamentally true to you and what were for the consumption of the general public.

Industrial engineering

I spent years pondering on the importance of industrial and human factors engineering and how to communicate their relevance in this fast pace environment of computer aided, computer simulated and computer controlled experiments that generate alternative solutions.  I was baffled on how to explain the difference between industrial and mechanical engineering when prompted: “So you are kind of a mechanical engineer?”  The two fields have not much in common except the pre-requisite courses in the first two years and the connotation to something having to do with machines and geared toward the manufacture and production of goods and the inevitable design of equipment and tools.

By the way, I never had the opportunity to take an industrial drawing course: everytime I tried to enroll for this course, I discovered that priority was given to the undergraduates.  The Dean had failed to include this course as a pre-requisite to satisfying my undergraduate program in 1975.  My guess is that the Dean might have figured that it is not actually that necessary for the graduate industrial engineer, since no industrial drawing would be contemplated, but I beg to differ.  How can any engineer whose basic general function is to design systems and tools not be trained in his mind and with his hand at viewing things in many dimensions?  Frankly, when I graduated I had many offerings in quality control of mechanical specifications to matching standards; I was too honest to declare that I had no industrial drawing schooling or training and declined jobs that were perfectly within my capabilities if I had the guts to lie.

May be the most damaging reason that inhibits me from socializing among people is the first unsolicited question asked: “What is your job?”  This is a question that I struggled very hard to identify and clarify for my own benefit first. I could take the alternative of returning a question by a question and try to find out what a “job” means in the mind of the inquirer. This technique in communication might means that I feel an interest in the person, that I like him to talk, that he would be willing to resume the conversation. I want to take a chance of investigating his reactions first; do we really want to communicate or the question is flatly a socializing gimmick?  Frankly, if I had something to sell or to buy my job should not be complicated.  The problem is that I probably have nothing to sell or buy either product or myself.

I don’t have a vocation and I am not interested wholeheartedly in anything that comes to mind.  I must discover myself and what gives me a sense to fight and struggle; I must know what drives me to wake up early and go at it.

Is my job what I currently do to earn a living or what I have studied and was trained to practice? Should I focus my explanation first on industrial or rather on the human factors engineering issues?  Is my real vocation my undergraduate (in Physics), Master’s (industrial), or Doctoral (human factors) program or what I have read lately?  Am I to disseminate the concepts that I hold to heart or to sell the company or the main product?

These wonderings are not abstract notions to me because I have been affected differently at various stages.  These questions are valid for someone who believes, deep down, that he never had a vocation and never really practiced what he should have been trained to do as a profession.

I consider myself a generalist in knowledge with no specific skills in any job specifications.  What is a job specification if not first, expertise in a very restricted job, and second, a thorough communication of the terms and vocabulary of the job?

Lebanon in 2000: Introspection,  (continue #52)

 

I arrived on Christmas of 2000 at night to the airport; the whole family was there to meet me with the exception of Joanna and dad.  Adrea was about 6 of age and she sprinted and jumped hugged me; she was missing a front tooth.  We loaded the large Dodge van and Elie was driving. 

I realized that the Capital Beirut and the district of Metn were almost a metropolis since buildings were uninterrupted for 17 kilometers on both side of the main road.  There were relatives waiting at home. 

Dad looked old.  He asked me how much I managed to save.  The number darkened his face even more and he had taken a decision on the spot. The next morning dad put our apartment in Beirut for sale.  I think that he was postponing that decision for a while hoping for a miracle.  We received an offer within a week from a family renting in the building opposite to ours. Our apartment was vast but the condition of the entire building was in disintegration and no one was in charge of the upkeep; there was all kinds of electrical wires and cable connected in the main entrance hall, and there was no parking lot for the building, and the street was lined with parked cars…

We could have sold it for a better price but dad was totally broke.  We received cash for the sale and I played body-guard to dad all the way home.  We re-counted the cash and I found out that we received over a million LL ($750) in surplus. The buyer called up and wondered if he paid more than he should.  We were affirmative and he drove to our home and got his money back.

I didn’t see Joanna for a whole day; she had fallen and injured her knees sprinting at school and wanted to show up in a better shape. William had started his first year at the Lebanese University in architecture.  Chelsea was barely 6 months old and didn’t cry when I held her up. 

The next night, mother had prepared a big supper and invited all the relatives, around twenty, and we all laughed and had a great time. I think that was the last mass invitation of a long tradition that is fading away.

I spent a year confused, frustrated, jobless, and with no car to drive around; I think that I was scared to drive in Lebanon and I needed that long to get familiar with my new environment.  I could not agree with the state of Lebanon under construction; it was mainly dust, dust, and more dust and traffic jam and honking and dangerous driving. 

My friend Ramez (a friend from my first visit to the University of Oklahoma at Norman) managed to send my CV to the Lebanese American University in Jubeil (Byblos) and I was hired to teach a course in Human Factors.  The industrial engineering curriculum listed a single course in Human Factors as required, and it was taught by a mechanical engineering professor who was glad to be relieved of this burden. 

That was my first official teaching experience and I prepared for a whole semester using old versions because there were no books or publications on Human Factors at the university library or in any other university libraries.

The first course was “Risk Assessment and Occupational Safety” offered in the fall, and the other course on Human Factors was reserved for the spring semester. Thus, I was driving twice a week to teach an hour, for a trip that lasted an hour drive, for  a total pay of $3,000 a semester.  I had asked the department of Industrial Engineering to subscribe to the Human Factors Journal so that I might update my course and initiate students to read published articles, but nothing materialized for the next three years.

I personally applied for the Journal at the library and they claimed that my application went through but I could find nothing on the shelves for the duration of my teaching there

In the third year, the engineering department decided to cancel the “Risk Assessment” course without asking my opinion, they never did ask for my opinion or even answered any of my letters, emails, or suggestions. The department substituted this course with “Reliability in Engineering” on the ground that it is more in line of engineering. 

Reliability is basically a few probability functions more applicable to actuarial or for insurance business. In industry, reliability is applied to test the life span of a light bulb for example.  I could teach this course because I have taken all the advanced probability courses and “reliability” too, but I was not asked to teach it on the implicit basis that I am “no real engineer”, I guess.  I thus ended up teaching a single course in spring for $3,000 per year.  No other university in Lebanon taught Human Factors related courses.

The worst part was that all the eligible students wanted to enroll in my course and I had to deal with over 60 students.  The department refused to open two sections in order to save a lousy additional $3,000.  Then, the various engineering departments, excepting Industrial engineering because Human Factors is required, decided not to allow their students to taking this course on the ground that they opened other more appropriate courses.

The Industrial department decided to appoint a woman as chairperson, though her PhD is not officially in industrial engineering.  She hired a full-time teacher of her acquaintances.  She did not like me because once, at the end of year dinner, I expressed my surprise that her husband is young; she retorted “Did you think that I was that old?”

Something about my second university period in the USA (1986-1991;continue 35)


I applied for a Canadian emigration visa in 1984 in Jounieh but it was denied me; the representative in the interview did not interview me at all; he told me never to apply again.  The unique question that he asked me, but that he was not interested in hearing the answer, was: “Why did you lie saying you had no job?”  I have been told that my job is at an end since the construction project was over in Maameltein.  But the arrogant Canadian representative did not wait for an answer; probably, Canada had reversed its decision for further immigration of Lebanese due to the desires of the Maronite Patriarch.  I thus decided for a PhD program at the same university, the University of Oklahoma at Norman, with a tacit understanding that I would benefit of a partial grant.

I obtained a visa to the USA for 5 years and bought a returned ticket; I never used returned tickets in both trips. I did not apply for graduate studies or anything.  It was a decision of the moment and I obtained a business visa. My parents were taken by surprise as a climate of peace was rumored to last.  A month after I landed in the US, civil war resumed in Lebanon and this time it was between the Lebanese Army of General Aoun PM and the “Lebanese Forces” of Samir and it was localized in our district. This round of civil war was among the Maronites and in the mainly Christian districts and it was the worst; people huddled for 6 months in their basements.  I had to contact the Red Cross in Oklahoma for news on my folks and relatives.  I received encouraging news two weeks later by mail from the Red Cross.

I left with $5,000 of my own saved money, much devalued by inflation. Again, I had no one to receive me at the airport and had no acquaintances to shelter me; it was the same lonely and frustrating process as my first travel, it was as if I never learned anything, but I knew my destination this time around and what to expect to see. There were no internet facilities at the time and no versatile communications means.

I stayed two days at the temporary university boarding building.  A bright Lebanese undergraduate student in electrical engineering named Ghassan visited me at the dorm and connected me with a Lebanese graduate student in Environmental Engineering who rented a house far from campus; he agreed to take me in for a week and I used to accompany him in his car mornings and evenings.

Ghassan was to obtain his PhD in the same year of my graduation and worked with Cisco in Oklahoma City. I forgot the name of the Environmental engineer: my memory is the weakest element of my brain, especially in recall. I remember that I aided this student during his PhD project; I connected him with the specialized person in data design and acquisition and then I helped him imputing data for statistical analysis; he insisted on paying me and when I finally asked for $100 for a whole month of work (I was totally broke at the time) he got furious for accepting money since he took me in for free, 5 years ago for a week.  This is a typical Lebanese testing gimmick for loyalty or whatever you label it; they insist and your role is to continue refusing, but I was not proficient in that custom and abhorred it.

Note:  Most of my jobs and positions after graduation in 1991 with a PhD in Human Factors Engineering were not related to my specialty, a specialty that I am still trying to define and explain to myself.  Luckily, 15 years later, I had the opportunity to teach at a university in Lebanon, on part-time basis, two courses related to Human Factors in engineering and I ended up writing over 50 professional articles to explain this discipline to myself and also for lack of textbooks and professional magazines that the university dragged its feet in acquiring them.  Twenty five of these articles were my way to re-discover what this field is all about and transmit its concept; I thus published on wordpress.com the category “What is that concept of Human Factors in Engineering?”.  I think that I learned to think properly in designing experiments in my PhD years and getting familiar with the various Statistical packages mostly used by social and economic disciplines


 

“How Human Factors are considered at the NASA jet propulsion laboratory”?

Article #47 ( written in June 7, 2006)

Professor Charles Elachy, the director of NASA jet propulsion center at Pasadena in California, gave a lecture at LAU, Byblos, during his visit to Lebanon, and was inducted a member of the Board of Director of the university.

I instructed my class to prepare written questions to submit to Professor Elachy after the lecture, but we failed in our endeavor because questions were stricly managed.  I composed a series of questions, and after discussing them with my class, I e-mailed them to Elachy on May 30, 2006.  The mail stated:

            “I teach a single course “Human Factors in engineering“, which is required for industrial engineers. This course used to be elective for the computer and other traditional engineering fields before this year, until it was eliminated as a viable choice in the curricula.

The main value of this course is to offer a behavioral change at looking at the design of projects from a different perspective. A few students in my class of Human Factors in engineering prepared a series of written questions for your lecture at LAU at Byblos, and we would appreciate your reply on the following:

1)   As a leading member of one of the most sophisticated man-made system from conception, to designing, testing, evaluation, production, operation, and execution, then would you consider that any failure in your system is ultimately a human error?

2)  Could you offer us samples of what NASA would consider as near accidents?  In such cases, would your internal investigation of any near accident try to assign the error to a person, a team, or the organization as a whole in order to redress potential hazards?

3)  I read that the engineering work force at your department in NASA is around 5000.  What is the percentage of human factors and “industrial psychology” professionals in that work force who are involved in designing interfaces, facilitator’ tools, training programs, conducting controlled experimentation, testing, and evaluating human behavioral performance in operations in order to foreseeing potential errors and eliminating safety hazards?

4)  To what extent are tailor-made task analysis, foreseeable errors analysis, and decision flow diagrams in every stage of the development process computerized as expert systems, and how embedded is the role of experts in reviewing computer outputs?

5) Could you give us a few samples of the kind of expert opinions that NASA still seek in system development? What are the impacts of expert opinions in the development cycle and how critical are they? On what system do you rely in decisions concerning the allocation of tasks to either operators or automation?

6)  Do you think that NASA has already accumulated an exhaustive list of cognitive and physical capabilities/limitations of human operators compared to machine potentials?  How efficient is a human operator currently evaluated within this growing trend in technology and automation?  What kind of guidelines does NASA engineers rely on for designing interfaces or anything that requires operators’ interactions with the system?

7) What types of inspectors do you mostly hire, such as technical versus people oriented? Would your guidelines for hiring technical or people performance inspectors differ (for example in-house hiring or outside contracting)?  Is assigning an employee to inspection jobs is generally viewed by engineers as a negative coded message for position downgrading?”

On June 4, I received the following reply from Eachy:

“Dear Adonis, my response to your questions will not be in the direct order because our work here is not a production activity.

Each spacecraft is different and they are always first of a kind.  However, we do have a system of checks and balances.

We have one organization which does the design and development (about 3,500 technical people) and a separate organization which does Quality Control (about 350 technical people).

The role of QC is not only to check on the quality of the work, but also to help the development organization do it right to start with.  So, we assign a few QC experts to each project, but they report through a different chain than the project manager.

When we have a problem we try to understand the root cause and develop procedure/training to avoid it in the future.

We do not try to blame a person but we put a number of reviews and independent checks to make sure problems don’t slip through the cracks.”

I read Professor Elachy’s response to class.  It was clear that Human Factors professionals are still viewed as more relevant in the production activity phase, although there are many cases where they were involved in analyzing missions from their inception, knowing that NASA pioneered the process of hiring Human Factors in the agency.

Update 1:Professor Elachy was awarded this year 2011, the French highest order in scientific achievement. He had done his highest studies in France before Charles Elachy was hired in the USA.

Update 2: Charles Elachy is the head of the team that landed the rover on Mars to find out if there is life on this hot planet

“A few anecdotes of my teaching methods” 

(Article #17 in the category of Human Factors, written on April 13, 2005)

My composite class of all engineering disciplines takes my course in Human Factors in engineering for different reasons. It is a required course to the industrial engineers, but optional to all the others.

You assume that most university students have discussed with the previous students about the contents, difficulty, novelty and time consuming constraints of this course.

Apparently, the responses generated in class to my query whether the students have any idea about this course prove that they have no knowledge whatsoever of Human Factors discipline, which is to design products and services with health, safety, and ease of use of consumers in mind.

I prompt them by mentioning the term ergonomics, and lo and behold, they have read this term somewhere in ads on ergonomically designed chairs and keyboards.

Another surprise is that when it comes to purchasing course materials and answering old questions in assignments, many succeed in locating previous students who took the course.

I have tried many teaching styles, revised several times the contents and arrangements of the course chapters, and experimented with various methods to encourage the students into reading the course materials on their own volition.

I varied the number of quizzes, exams, assignments and lab projects, tried to encourage them to read research articles, investigated new presentation techniques, gave them hints on how best to read and assimilate the materials, emphasized on thinking like engineers and not memorize information, and I assigned students to read to the class:  I received basically the same observations, no matter how I change the course.

1.Engineering students will read only under duress,

2. Will barely take notes even if bonus points are at stakes,

3. Will start an assignment a couple of days before due date, even if the assignment was handed out several weeks prior to due date,

4. Will remember to ask for clarifications only on due date,

5. Will copy and cheat unabashedly.

Engineering students refuse to carry to class any course material, unless the exam is an open book.

Many don’t bring any paper or pen to take notes, many refuse to redo their assignments for a couple extra points or for closure sake, and most of the redone works show no improvement.

Students can use word processors or any computer applications for their assignments, but the end product has to be hand written, including tables, charts and figures. Guess why I figured out this constraints?

It turned out that my guess was correct: most of the time I can manage to read physicians’ prescriptions better than their handwriting assignment.

There was a time when engineers were trained to submit neat drawings, as engineers should be trained to do, but this time is long gone.

Another advantage of submitting hand written work is that students will actually read what they are writing and rely less on copied CD’s and try their hands on being neat, using rulers, compasses and the long lost engineering working components.

I invented several ways to brute force students to read at least parts of the course materials.

In addition to mid-term and final exams, they have to answer dozens of questions for their mid-term and final take homes exams.

I assign graphs, tables and figures to students to hand write, copy on transparent sheets and present to class with written explanation attached.

All assignments are submitted on composition booklets.

I encourage them to take notes by asking them questions on materials not covered in the course materials, and giving bonuses to anyone who remember to provide a copy of his notes on final day.

I have come to realize that any zest I invest in teaching is for just a couple of students each semesters.

Yes, there is this couple of students who demonstrate this want to learn: it is always refreshing to feel that a few students are serious about the money invested by their parents for them to learn at universities.

What’s that new concept? (Article #7)

“What message should the Human Factors profession transmit?” (April 4, 2005)

I have in a previous article, in a short sentence that may have gone unnoticed, mentioned that the main objective of Human Factors in Engineering is designing interfaces between complex systems and targeted end users.

Modern days are an accumulation of very complex systems that societies can no longer live without and have to suffer their consequences in health, safety, comfort, risks or fatal accidents. 

Modern days rely on communications systems, on health care, on educational, on information, on transportation, on energy, on financial, on tourism, on diplomatic, and even on political systems.

Usually, there are purposes for establishing any system and the money generated could only be the consequences of satisfying human specific demands that a developed standard of living requires, or are encouraged through advertisements, or are initiated by new laws to regulating a society.

Transportation systems, from automobile to trains to airplanes and ships have allowed distances to be accessible to many users for daily business in remote areas from where they reside.  More people are tempted to doing routine business trips to other countries and the trend might increase if entrance visas to foreign countries were to be eliminated.

A transportation system consists of safe routes, safe vehicles, safe maintenance facilities, safety standards, health standards, and efficient human support from ticketing, to baggage claim, to insurance, to inspection, to monitoring and to planning for future expansions.

Modern days rely on power generation and distribution systems, from the kind of energy sources, to the distribution lines, to the demand and supply of energy, to the maintenance facilities and all the safety and health standards and human support interfaces.

This modern world, more than in any previous centuries, is plagued with complex systems that are automated in many portions with no human understanding of how a system functions or can be repaired or be redesigned except a few rare professional experts.

These vast and very costly systems are created, assembled, maintained and run by different specialized personnel who have no serious interconnections among one another.

Every section of any system requires an interface with another section so that the end user can communicate with another section without any obligation to know or understand the details of the other section.

These interfaces have to be designed to be used with minimal skills, knowledge or special training.

These interfaces have to be usable friendly and to fit most of the personnel regardless of gender, race, stature or religious affiliations.

These interfaces should have functions and tasks that correlate well with the capabilities of the users.

Consumers require easy to use objects, safe objects, error free and accident free objects.

Consumers need to access these complex systems quickly, cheaply, without the requirement for extensive training or intermediate personnel to doing business or making the objects function according to their idiosyncrasies.

The Human Factors engineering discipline should be the application of the body of knowledge, information and facts about human abilities, limitations, (physical, mental and psychological) and characteristics to the design of tools, machines, systems, tasks, jobs, and environments for safe, comfortable and effective human use;.

The Human Factors engineering discipline is expected to direct its research toward practical design purposes and offer data that can be readily applied by engineers from different discipline.

Note:  My initial version attached the word “system” to every service offered in order to exaggerate the trend in our modern world.  The baffled student who was assigned to read my version was prompted by the whole class, in a rhythmic fashion, sarcastically pronouncing “system” to every word he read.

“In peace time, why and how often are Human Factors professionals hired?” (February 23, 2005)

Human Factors in Engineering (Article #6)

In peace time, governments of modern countries are the major employers of Human Factors engineers and industrial psychologists either directly or indirectly.

Many of government’s contracts with private companies attach clauses that require involvements of these professionals in their projects and so they get hired in order to secure bids.

In peace time, which is rare, companies have the luxury to select who they think are the best qualified candidates from the vast pool of job applicants locally and internationally.

People assume that the hired applicants are mostly the best qualified technically and the best trained for the jobs.

Most of us are very skeptical about that assumption of hiring the best qualified applicants, especially in underdeveloped countries.

It seems that this skepticism is applicable everywhere and for good reasons:

When you have to interact with coworkers every day for 8 hours a day, it stands to reason that you prefer people whom you think are compatible to your idiosyncrasies and general ideology.

So far, this approach might be considered rational emotionally and bearing many elements of common sense and good judgments.

On the other hand, how could any one test his incompatibility of living and interacting with someone else based on his discrimination on sex, race, color and religion, if the opportunities to meet with them is an impossibility or at best the interactions are fleeting?

Under social and political pressures, governments have enacted laws that prohibit discrimination on the jobs, unless the applicant is proven unqualified by well documented facts for specific requirements.

Obviously, a law is not much of a law if no painful penalties are attached to it and no enforcement mechanisms are contemplated or an appropriate budget allocated for an independent agency and inspection agents.

So, how could an enforcement agency go about clamping down on these companies that discriminate unabashedly and with no impunity?

The first main tool is to collect data and analyze the proportions of the population hired in order to uncover tacit and biased discrimination tendencies.

A more serious analysis would compare these proportions within each department, especially in the higher levels jobs.

Any critical discrepancy in these proportions will trigger a red alert for direct inspection of the non abiding firms and legal actions taken.

By the by, the enforcement agency would learn to set priorities in their enforcement endeavor and learn what categories of companies are most inclined to discriminate for closer targeting.

So, what other job descriptions can be applicable to the training of Human Factors graduates in peace time?

A few of the design training in sound curriculum offer capabilities for designing instruction manuals, job aids, training programs, evaluation of systems on criteria of safe usage, ease of operation, ease of maintenance and repair, acceptability and retaining products.

Many of these jobs are taken by other graduates who have narrow multidisciplinary training and knowledge but are not described as engineering jobs and evidently lower wages are offered and gladly accepted.

Another job opportunity is designing workstations, not only in manufacturing facilities but also computer workstations for institutions and private use. And educating the consumers to the various safety and health problems related to sedentary and repetitive jobs.

Note:  The version of a student to my article gave the impression that discrimination to jobs is prevalent only in underdeveloped countries.  I believe that perception is not correct since only a continual and persistent application and enforcement of the anti discrimination laws can hold discrimination behavior to a reduced level and check its spread among the companies and institutions.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

September 2021
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