IST course aims to build impactful user-friendly tech


By Jessica Hallman

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Helping users interact with information technology in a way that could potentially impact the world was the objective of a semester-long fall project in HCI: The User and Technology, a graduate level course in the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

Instructed by Frank Ritter, professor of information sciences and technology, the course guides students through a process of building interfaces, modeling the user, and evaluating the fit of the interface to the user and their tasks by using a wide range of methodologies in human-computer interaction (HCI).

“This project helped us to understand how to use HCI tools and interpret the results we gathered from using such tools,” said Courtney Cole, a doctoral student in the College of Engineering. “While my project partner and I both work in different fields of human factors, we could both see ourselves using HCI principles to aid our research — whether that be designing an interface to help with team communication in engineering design, which is related to my research, or understanding how health care workers interact with medical training devices, which is my partner’s research focus.”

Cole’s partner, Jessica Gonzalez-Vargas, doctoral student in the College of Engineering, added, “As designers, we are now more aware of how to design better products that require interaction through an interface.”

Their project, which focuses on building and testing an interface to measure walking speed (the sixth vital sign), provides those working in health care with a record-based platform where they can create, add or update their patient’s record based on walking speed, fatigue, breathlessness, pain and other physical characteristics.

For their work, their paper was one of two selected for the course’s Fred Loomis Outreach Prize. The other, authored by Hangzhi Guo, doctoral student in the College of IST, and Na Li, doctoral student in the College of Education, explored how an explanatory machine learning model could help teachers understand students’ academic progress and predict their final scores.

They interviewed K-12 teachers and conducted thematic analysis to understand the challenges teachers had when they were using an explanatory machine learning model.

“Currently, explainable AI has been widely investigated, but most methods are not designed for individuals with limited machine learning knowledge,” said Guo. “We want to fill this gap by identifying the factors and needs for K-12 teachers in understanding explanations of machine learning models increasingly being used to improve instruction.”

According to Ritter, students worked together during an unusual time amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and achieved valuable results.

“The projects are useful for their development as scholars, researchers and future industrial researchers, contract researchers and professors,” he said. “And the results are useful for the world — including the two projects that earned the Fred Loomis Outreach Prize, as well as several projects looking at how to improve mental health among graduate students, how users can protect themselves online, and how users can improve their presence online.”

Through the course, students also became qualified by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), a federally mandated entity that oversees the protection of human subjects in research. At Penn State, an IRB must review all research involving human subjects before a project begins.

“Our involvement with this project will lay a good foundation for us to further pursue research in this area,” said Li. “We already submitted (our study proposal to the) IRB and plan to recruit more participants to collect data, which will help us publish this paper in a conference.”


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College of Engineering Media Relations

“As designers, we are now more aware of how to design better products that require interaction through an interface.”
—Jessica Gonzalez-Vargas, doctoral student in industrial engineering