Gilbert combines interests in cognitive science and emerging technologies

Stephen Gilbert’s fascination with technology and cognitive science has led him to his current role as  assistant professor in the Department ofStephen Gilbert Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering (IMSE), associate director of the Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC), and a member of Iowa State’s Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research group.

Gilbert started his college career at Princeton University, where the blossoming computer era encouraged him to pursue a degree in operations research.

“I got started in engineering because the engineering building in my undergraduate college had just bought a new cluster of computers with 3D graphics. I was fascinated,” Gilbert says. “I asked, ‘What do I have to do to get to play with these computers? They responded, ‘Become an engineer,’ so that’s what I did.”

With his bachelor’s degree in science education from Princeton, Gilbert went on to earn a doctorate in brain and cognitive science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while also teaching a variety of courses as a teaching assistant. Gilbert then spent time in the corporate realm, designing software and investigating ways in which the web could enable new forms of learning.

“I entered the corporate world for two reasons,” says Gilbert. “One was because my postdoc with MIT’s Center for Innovation in Product Development had exposed me to a variety of industries with research and development divisions, so I knew there were a lot of great opportunities out there for me. The other was because it was the middle of the dot-com boom and I wanted to be part of that.”

After working for ten years, Gilbert made the move to Ames with his wife, Joanne Marshall, an assistant professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. He ran his own software company at the University Research Park until 2006, when he began helping run the HCI program and doing research at VRAC.

HCI is an interdepartmental graduate program. Gilbert and three other faculty members in the program spend half their time performing HCI work and the remainder in their home departments.

“Part of the reason I like working with VRAC and its HCI program is that it’s a very interdisciplinary group of researchers. You can easily find other people to work with who have common interests but different backgrounds,” says Gilbert.

More recently, he decided to pursue a tenure position in IMSE as a part of the department’s human factors group, still following his overarching interest in technology and the ways in which it can aid or distract from thinking and learning.

Gilbert is studying intelligent tutoring systems that analyze a person’s actions and provide feedback or instructions on improvement, similar to a human tutor. “My goals are to have coaching systems that will help people in using complex software and simulate training in virtual environments,” he says.

While his research addresses issues related to training and education in STEM fields, he has also explored the dynamics of online education. According to Gilbert, one of the biggest challenges in the field today is personalized education, which also resonates with the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering. The growing movement of personalized education teaches students through the use of two to three minute videos, online discussions and automated quizzes found at institutions like Khans Academy and Coursera. “Offering the just-in-time knowledge that people need will be an interesting challenge,” says Gilbert.

He adds that it is important for humans to understand complex systems in the event that a component fails. “If you have too much automation and the human doesn’t understand it, he or she can’t fix things when they go wrong.”

In addition to his research, Gilbert enjoys teaching courses, such as the Cognitive Psychology of Human Computer Interaction and a project-based HCI capstone course.

Gilbert also runs a National Science Foundations Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. The Summer Program for Interdisciplinary Research and Education-Emerging Interface Technologies at Iowa State kicks off its seventh year this summer and has one of the highest number of applicants among REU programs nationally.

“The REU students really bond with one another and are involved in some great projects. We hope to entice them to come back for graduate school,” says Gilbert. “I enjoy having so many ways to teach other people why they should be excited about human factors and emerging technologies. It’s a real passion of mine.”