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Drexel Is Helping the FAA Modernize Technical Training

You might not think, when you fly, about the air traffic controllers helping to guide you safely to your destination. But their jobs are essential and their training needs to be as advanced as possible to keep your flight smooth. As part of a new Federal Aviation Administration Center of Excellence (COE) led by the University of Oklahoma and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Drexel is doing its part to ensure workers are trained with the most up-to-date methods and technologies to make flying as safe and efficient as possible.

Drexel is a core member of the Solutions for Operational Aviation Research COE, a consortium of academic institutions and key industry partners providing the FAA with research to modernize the technical training of air traffic controllers, aviation safety inspectors, airway transportation system specialists, engineers and technicians. Drexel researchers will look for new ways to measure workers’ performance, improve the delivery of knowledge and align training with the tasks workers perform on the job.

“They do a critical job, they perform critical safety tasks, and we need to make sure they’re trained well into the future with advanced technologies and personalized and adaptive training methods,” said Kurtulus Izzetoglu, PhD, an associate research professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems who is Drexel’s institutional principal investigator for the COE.

The technical training and human performance COE is the second for which Drexel serves as a core institution. Drexel is also a core member of the COE on unmanned aircraft systems, announced in 2015. Drexel has been performing research at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where students and faculty support “human in the loop” studies to assess the controllers’ true cognitive performance. That work helped get the University to be a COE member institution, Izzetoglu said. The facility hosts two of Drexel’s wearable functional near-infrared spectroscopy units, or fNIRS, to measure brain activity in field settings, and they could be used to help monitor a trainee’s expertise development and cater to their educational needs, he said.

At this early stage, Ellen Bass, PhD, a professor and head of the Department of Information Science in the College of Computing & Informatics, is leading one of the COE’s projects. She and Adam Fontecchio, PhD, a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering, are supporting another.

Bass is working with faculty from Purdue University to develop methods to analyze the alignment of training and job tasks for technical operations personnel. She and Fontecchio, meanwhile, are collaborating with Ohio State University researchers to help the FAA exchange training best practices and safety ideas with the world’s air traffic controller training community.

Izzetoglu is already in conversation with Frank Lee, PhD, an associate professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design who co-founded Drexel’s Game Design Program, about how gaming could factor into improved training methods. Chris Sims, PhD, an assistant professor in the Applied Cognitive and Brain Sciences program within the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology, may also get involved in a potential project focused on the retirement age for air traffic controllers and the impact of age on job performance.

“This COE can facilitate multi-institution collaborative research,” Izzetoglu said of the interdisciplinary aspects of the project. “That’s what the agency expects from it, and otherwise we can’t be successful.”

The research won’t be done only by Drexel faculty — students already play a role. Two students are involved now, and the program encourages their participation, Bass said. Although a research initiative with industry participants could require Drexel to keep its findings under wraps, that isn’t the case here.

“[The FAA] wants us working with students,” said Bass. “They want us disseminating our results. They want us going to conferences.”

It’s still early in the process, but Drexel faculty are excited about where it could lead and how it could grow to incorporate more corners of the University.

“As we go forward into what the FAA’s challenges are and what the solutions need to be, I think the breadth and scope will get wider,” said Bass.

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