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Abi Fowler

PhD Candidate, Faculty of Engineering

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Research Summary

STEM Sunday "My Journey to a PhD" Talk, Sunday 10th February 2019

I joined a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Sunday event at Loughborough Grammar School. I was happy to join in when I heard they were running STEM events for secondary school boys and girls. On a rather wet and windy day, I headed to the event hoping the pupils would enjoy my talk and have some interesting questions.

My talk covered My Journey to a PhD, my research, and a memory game to demonstrate working memory. The game involved seeing an image of items from around the home and kitchen for 10 seconds. Then having 10 seconds to write down as many items as they could remember. I took the items with me as a tactile version in case any blind or partially sighted pupils attended. Somewhat ironically I forgot to boil an egg to take with me to match the image, but improvised with an egg cup for the tactile version.

The talk went really well and the pupils loved the memory test. No one got all 14 items, and they all sighed when I put the image back up so they could see what they'd missed. The second test involved spotting what was missing from an image, and they all answered the moment the slide appeared. It was a simple but effective demonstration of how our ability to remember varies between tasks and this should be considered in design. I am glad I included a practical element as it is always great to get more interaction. The group had been hesitant to ask questions, so it was good to give them permission to get involved at the end of the talk.

My PhD is sponsored by the rail industry. It turned out that Network Rail provide funding for a STEM challenge. Pupils were eager to hear how they could work on projects of interest to Network Rail. I suggested they consider level crossings, and how to influence the behaviour of level crossing users, as this is an area of great interest to the rail industry.

During the day I got to hear some of the current ideas students had for their own STEM projects. These included how to detect when someone is having an allergic reaction to food and designing a water filtration system to provide drinking water. I was really impressed with the range of projects and their innovation.

I talked to the teacher afterwards, and they will be coordinating STEM events in the future across the region to raise awareness with pupils of opportunities and future careers in STEM. I welcome this programme, and the links that can be built between schools and universities to support pupils in their further education of STEM subjects.

STEM Sunday "My Journey to a PhD" Talk, Sunday 10th February 2019

I joined a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Sunday event at Loughborough Grammar School. I was happy to join in when I heard they were running STEM events for secondary school boys and girls. On a rather wet and windy day, I headed to the event hoping the pupils would enjoy the talk and have some interesting questions.

My talk covered My Journey to a PhD, my research, and a memory game to demonstrate working memory. The game involved seeing an image of items from around the home and kitchen for 10 seconds. Then having 10 seconds to write down as many items as they could remember. I took the items with me as a tactile version for any blind or partially sighted pupils. Somewhat ironically I forgot to boil an egg to take with me to match the image, but improvised with an egg cup for the tactile version.

The talk went really well and the pupils loved the memory test. No one got all 14 items, and they all sighed when I put the image back up so they could see what they'd missed. The second test involved spotting what was missing from an image, and they all answered the moment the slide appeared. It was a simple but effective demonstration of how our ability to remember varies between tasks and this should be considered in design. I am glad I included a practical element as it is always great to get more interaction. The group had been hesitant to ask questions, so it was good to give them permission to get involved at the end of the talk.

My PhD is sponsored by the rail industry. It turned out that Network Rail provide funding for a STEM challenge. Pupils were eager to hear how they could work on projects of interest to Network Rail. I suggested they consider level crossings, and how to influence the behaviour of level crossing users, as this is an area of great interest to the whole industry.

During the day I got to hear some of the current ideas students had for their own STEM projects. These included how to detect when someone is having an allergic reaction to food and designing a water filtration system to provide drinking water. I was really impressed with the range of projects and their innovation.

I talked to the teacher afterwards, and they will be coordinating STEM events in the future across the region to raise awareness with pupils of opportunities and future careers in STEM. I welcome this programme, and the links that can be built between schools and universities to support pupils in their further education of STEM subjects.

Past Research

This is an example of a study conducted in 2016-2017.

Evaluating Mental Workload with Physiological Data: Investigating the suitability of Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS)

Abigail Fowler, Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training, University of Nottingham, March 2017

Keywords- Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS); Mental workload; Prefrontal cortex

Introduction

There is a need in safety critical industries to understand operator mental workload, as humans are known to make more errors when cognitively over or under-loaded. This study investigates whether mental workload (MWL) from cognitive tasks is associated with a physiological response, what that response is, and whether it can be detected. If physiological measures can detect MWL, results could in future inform decisions about system, technology and interface design in safety critical systems.

Definitions of MWL vary (Sharples and Megaw 2015). Here MWL refers to the cognitive load imposed by a task, resulting in a cognitive activity level proportional to overall cognitive capacity.

Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) derives hemoglobin oxygenation and deoxygenation in the brain, based on the level of reflected near-infrared light. A headband on the forehead, near the prefrontal cortex, detects levels of activity. This area of the brain is associated with working memory function and the direction of attention. fNIRS has previously been found to distinguish MWL (Maior, Wilson and Sharples 2016). Figure 1 shows an example of high oxygenation levels.

Methodology

Eleven participants wore fNIRS whilst playing a computer game. The task involved detecting and destroying target balls as they fell down the screen. In this study, to supplement physiological measures, MWL was assessed using the subjective measures Instantaneous Self-Assessment (ISA) and NASA Task Load Index (TLX). It was hypothesized that firstly, cognitive task demand would be higher when targeting odd numbered balls compared with red balls. Secondly fNIRS would detect changes in task performance. Finally, fNIRS would reflect changes in perceived MWL.

Results

The study found a significant correlation between fNIRS and both task performance score and mental workload but not in all participants. Figure 1 shows an example of high oxygenation levels, associated with high perceived MWL. The difference between conditions was not significant. This however, could be due to the cognitive task being similar in terms of prefrontal cortex involvement.

fNIRS shows great potential as an objective, continuous measure of MWL. It does not interfere with the task, provided the participant can stay relatively still e.g. seated. fNIRS is particularly suited to cognitive tasks with a high demand on working memory. The reliability and validity of fNIRS need further study as a measure of MWL.

References

Sharples, S. and Megaw, T., 2015. The definition and measurement of human workload. In Wilson, J.R. and Sharples, S. eds., 2015. Evaluation of human work. CRC press.

Maior, H. A., Wilson, M. L. and Sharples, S. C. (2016) 'Workload Alerts - Using Physiological Measures of Mental Workload to Provide Feedback during Tasks', ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction.

Acknowledgements: This work was support by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training (EP/G037574/1) and EPSRC Grant (EP/M000877/1). Thanks go to Horia Maior, Adrian Marinescu and Max Wilson at the University of Nottingham for their support and encouragement.

Human Factors Research Group

Faculty of Engineering
The University of Nottingham
University Park, Nottingham
NG7 2RD, UK


Telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 4040
Email: human.factors@nottingham.ac.uk