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Rethink Information: Barrett Caldwell

Caldwell studying the flow of information

Studying the Flow of Information

Many people think of manufacturing when they think of industrial engineering. But Purdue IE’s Professor Barrett Caldwell is proving there is much broader universe of issues that IE can shed insight on. From spaceflight mission operations to health care coordination, the professor of industrial engineering has researched a variety of topics during his 10 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,” says Caldwell. “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, however: discovering how experts get, share and use information well in complex task environments. In fact, he directs a research group that is focused around this goal — the Group Performance Environments Research (GROUPER) Lab, which is made up primarily of graduate students.

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

In addition, one of Caldwell’s students is researching ambulances’ responses to emergencies.

“EMTs have to deal with both an information layer and a physical layer on their way to an emergency site,” Caldwell says. “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. My student is looking at how to integrate the two layers in order to optimize an ambulance’s response to an emergency.”

Caldwell also has done a good deal of research on 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.”