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Studying the flow of information

Studying the flow of information

Magazine Section: Our People, Our Culture
College or School: CoE
Article Type: Issue Feature
Feature Intro: Many people think of manufacturing when they think of industrial engineering. But Barrett Caldwell is proving there is a much broader universe of issues that IE can shed light on.
Many people think of manufacturing when they think of industrial engineering. But Barrett Caldwell is proving there is a much broader universe of issues that IE can shed light on. From spaceflight mission operations to health care coordination, Caldwell, professor of industrial engineering, has researched a variety of topics during his nearly 12 years at Purdue — all from a decidedly interdisciplinary approach.

“In my opinion, there is too much focus in academia on studying topics in only one problem domain or researching questions using just one methodology,” Caldwell says. “If we are to make real progress on tackling crucial interdisciplinary problems, we cannot continue this silo-based approach.”

Caldwell’s research benefits from his interdisciplinary background. He holds a B.S. in aeronautics and astronautics, a B.S. in humanities, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in social psychology. Nearly all his work has had one common goal: discovering how experts get, share and use information in complex task environments. In fact, he directs a research group that is focused on this goal — the Group Performance Environments Research (GROUPER) Lab, which is made up primarily of graduate students.

A layered approach to healthcare delivery

“Our most current research has focused on health care,” Caldwell says. “We’ve been studying how experts coordinate health care delivery. We’ve done that with outpatient prescriptions and with radiation treatment for cancer.”

Caldwell says one area that needs more emphasis is the interactions of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and even patients as experts in their own lives.  This problem of expertise coordination is not limited to health care, but it has a major effect on the quality of information flow and knowledge sharing for health care teams.

In addition, student researchers study how to integrate information and physical "layers" to optimize ambulance response to emergencies. Caldwell says EMTs have to deal with both an information layer and a physical layer on their way to an emergency site.

“The information layer includes questions like ‘What’s the nature of the accident?’ and ‘What do we need to do when we get there?’ The physical layer deals with the physical limitations of how the ambulance gets from one point to another, such as what roads are available and what is the best route at a particular time of day.”

Safer space missions

Caldwell also has researched an area of lifelong interest — long-duration spaceflight. He serves as director of the Indiana Space Grant Consortium and has received NASA funding since 1997.

“My research bears an impact on how NASA would manage information flow from a human outpost on Mars, where a signal takes up to 20 minutes to reach Earth,” Caldwell says. “In such a case, immediate communication with ground control isn’t possible. But if we had a system in place that pooled expertise, it could be vital for problem solving.”

Like others scouting new territory, Caldwell calls for additional exploration of this frontier of information flow studies.

“We’ve made great advances in technology, which involves bits,” he says. “However, information is a flow variable, like money or materials. We know a lot more about the latter flows than we do about information flow. And we can’t get there by studying bits.”