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A Conversation with Deborah Carstens, Professor

“Students today have so many different opportunities for learning,” Carstens says.

By University Alliance

Debbie Carstons HeadshotYes, to err is human. But when it comes to figuring out just why humans err, well, that’s Deborah Carstens’ territory.

It’s a field of research with the potential to have profound impact, from making sure senior citizens get the medical care they need to protecting online data from hackers and ensuring astronauts return to Earth safely.

“All humans are capable of error,” said Carstens, PhD, a professor of aviation human factors in Florida Tech’s renowned College of Aeronautics and a certified Project Management Professional®.

“Technology errors may occur not only from the person making an error in using technology,” she said, “but also the programmer who programmed the technology could have made a software error or the designer of the system may have made a hardware design error.”

I get the most satisfaction, whether it is an online or on-campus student, when students learn.

Carstens, who earned her Master of Business Administration degree from Florida Tech, joined the regionally accredited university’s faculty in 2003 after more than a decade with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Her work at NASA Kennedy Space Center focused on analyzing how human factors and project management principles can be applied to improve measures such as performance and safety.

Carstens has continued her research in those fields at Florida Tech, where she also has served as academic chair for the online MBA in Project Management program. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses, including Human Automation, Advanced Human Factors and Human Performance.

Carstens spoke with us recently about a range of subjects, from training methods for operators of unmanned aerial vehicles to strategies for success for online students.

Q. Tell us about your background and what brought you to Florida Tech?

My educational background is a PhD in Industrial Engineering (Human Factors track) from the University of Central Florida, an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BS in Business Administration, also from the University of Central Florida.

My work background is as a faculty member for 12 years at FIT, and as an analyst and engineer at NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for 11 years.

I always enjoyed research and conducting training at NASA KSC, so I was naturally attracted to a field where I could do my two favorite work activities daily!

Q. What sparked your interest in project management and, particularly, how it can be applied in the field of aviation?

Project management is typically a field found in industrial engineering and business. With my educational background in both of these fields, I was exposed to many project management topics, which sparked my interest. Project management helps to optimize a person from an effective and efficient standpoint, both of which are important to the field of aviation but also to any industry. 

Q. You are part of an effort to assess the effectiveness of various training methods for operators of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), including pilots and non-pilots. Can you tell us more about that initiative?  

The specific goals of the study are:

  1. Identify the optimal method for training UAS operators. This will be achieved by placing test participants in one of two groups. Group A will be trained on selected tasks using the College of Aeronautics’ UAS simulation software. Once the participants have successfully completed the tasks within the simulation, the participants will be tested on the same tasks using a UAS to determine if transfer of training occurred from the simulated to real-world environment. Group B will train and test only in a real-world environment. In other words, no simulation training will occur in Group B. During the test, the task times and errors for each participant tested in the real-world will be recorded and a transfer efficiency ratio (TER) identified for each method to determine the better method.
  2. Contribute toward an existing gap in the literature regarding the best method to train UAS operators. The objective is to identify if operators learn effectively in a simulated environment. Learning in a simulated environment reduces training costs, minimizes safety incidents from limited operator experience and minimizes the replacement costs of damaged unmanned aerial systems.
  3. Understand if pilots and non-pilots differ in performance. Participants recruited will be selected from a population of both pilots and non-pilots from the university. The objective for this goal is to identify if UAS operators should be operationally certified. 

Q. You worked at Kennedy Space Center for 11 years examining human factors and project management for NASA programs. What did you discover through your research into those fields?

I found that the field of project management and human factors helps researchers to optimize human performance, safety, efficiency and effectiveness in processes, systems and websites.

Q. What was your favorite aspect of working for NASA?

The NASA family was my favorite aspect of working at KSC as everyone worked together on the same goals. There is so much synergy involved with teamwork!

Q. You teach a course in Human Automation and your research has encompassed the use and effectiveness of technology such as podcasts in academic settings. How are automation and the digital age impacting diverse fields such as education and project management?

Students today have so many different opportunities for learning. The Learning Management System [for Florida Tech’s online degree programs] does a great job of helping faculty and students gain access to organized course material to ease the learning process. Also, students can learn through video lectures, podcasts, chats, etc. There are so many user-friendly avenues to learning online and even in providing supplemental materials to students in face-to-face classes, too.

Q. Let’s continue on the theme of human-technology interaction and your research into human error. How does technology affect our propensity for error?

All humans are capable of error. Technology errors may occur not only from the person making an error in using technology, but also the programmer who programmed the technology could have made a software error or the designer of the system may have made a hardware design error. Therefore, testing of products, systems, websites, etc., needs to occur with a sample of the user population so that errors get designed out. Even if the programmer and designer errors get designed out before a system reaches the marketplace, sometimes testing will reveal that more intuitive design interfaces are needed to help users use the technology with more ease.

Q. How does Florida Tech’s 100% online MBA in Project Management program prepare students to advance their professional goals?

It provides them with learning centered on the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) Guide published by the Project Management Institute (PMI). The degree is accredited through the PMI® Global Accreditation Center as it is recognized as a degree that prepares students well for all PMI professional project management certifications.

Q. What has surprised you most about teaching in an online environment and what gives you the most satisfaction?

I have been surprised by the ease with which students can learn in an online environment. The technology surrounding the online educational experience helps significantly, along with providing students clear expectations of the work desired. I get the most satisfaction, whether it is an online or on-campus student, when students learn. It is very enjoyable to see students’ progress from the beginning to the end of the semester!

Q. Given your extensive knowledge of human performance and project management, what strategies for success would you offer to students embarking on an online degree program?

My advice to online students is to read through the syllabus to understand when test and homework deadlines are due so that they provide themselves with ample time to complete these important class activities. I actually attribute my project management background with helping me with time management, and I advise students to also treat each class as they would a work project so that there is a sufficient amount of planning involved to successfully carry out the work.

Q. You are a past recipient of the Joan Bixby Award in recognition of your work fostering the participation and development of women at Florida Tech. Can you tell us more about that honor?

I was honored to receive this award for mentoring women affiliated with our university. I was nominated for it by a graduate student, which made this award very special to me. I always enjoy helping others and have been very fortunate to have wonderful mentors in my own life and career. It brings me great joy to provide support to others!

Want to learn more about Florida Tech’s fascinating faculty? Check out our Faculty Interviews series here.

Category: Faculty Interviews