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Psychology

New Lab Helps Students Learn Human Factors Research

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Southwestern is one of the first liberal arts colleges to have a human performance lab

How do emotional states affect human performance?

Southwestern students now have the opportunity to learn firsthand, thanks to a new laboratory that has been set up on campus called the Human Performance Lab.

The lab is located on the second floor of the Olin Building and is directed by Paula Desmond, an assistant professor of psychology who joined the Southwestern faculty in 2007. Desmond specializes in the area of psychology known as human factors, which focuses on how systems can be best designed to work efficiently with the people who use them.

Desmond said Southwestern is one of only a few liberal arts college that have a human performance lab.

“Human factors is a relatively young field of research,” Desmond said. “Most students don’t get exposed to it until graduate school. We’re bringing something new to Southwestern, and I’m thrilled to be part of that.”

Junior psychology majors Alexandra Burbey and Addison English are the first to benefit from the new lab. The two are using it this year for their psychology capstone project. The two spent last semester developing and piloting a driving simulation study to run in the lab and will spend this semester conducting their research study.

“This is a very interactive capstone project,” Burbey said as she showed off the lab’s fully interactive 3-D driving simulator.

The driving simulator can be programmed to simulate different weather conditions, different road textures and different times of day. Those who are using the simulator hear real noises such as the car revving up as RPMs increase. “It’s much more realistic than a video game,” Burbey said.

Burbey said she is more interested in clinical psychology, but English said he is considering a career in human factors research. “It combines psychology and computer work, which fits my personality,” he said.

Desmond said she hopes the lab will give students transferrable research skills, no matter what they want to do. Desmond is also interested in exploring how emotional states impact health; a second room in the lab is used for research that is strictly questionnaire-based.

The Human Performance Laboratory is the Psychology Department’s third laboratory. Other labs are the Aquatic Animal Laboratory, directed by Jesse Purdy, and the Neuroscience Research Laboratory, directed by Fay Guarraci.

Jacquie Muir-Broaddus, chair of the Psychology Department, said the department wanted to add the new laboratory because the study of human factors is a growing field that offers career opportunities for students with both undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees.

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