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June 20: Carnegie Mellon Takes Research on the Road With Data Truck


Jonathan Potts

Carnegie Mellon Will Take Research
On the Road With New Data Truck    

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University today unveiled the Data Truck, a 36-foot mobile social science laboratory that will allow the university to conduct research involving groups of people, such as senior citizens, who cannot readily come to campus.      

Data TruckThe truck's trailer is outfitted with a waiting area and eight workstations, where research participants will be able to answer surveys, work on computers or test new products. For example, researchers plan to use the Data Truck to study how people learn to use new technologies. This kind of research has important applications for developing devices that will help senior citizens and people with disabilities lead more independent lives, which is a major focus of Carnegie Mellon's Quality of Life Technologies Initiative. The initiative is a joint venture with the University of Pittsburgh that is supported by the National Science Foundation.    

"This research is central to our Quality of Life activities, which are not just about inventing new products, but also about understanding how people adopt new technologies," said Jim Osborn, executive director of the Quality of Life Technology Center.    

The truck will be owned by the university's Center for Behavioral Decision Research (CBDR), which is operated jointly by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Tepper School of Business and the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management. The center studies human decision-making in a variety of contexts, including consumer spending, drug addiction and the legal system. With the Data Truck, CBDR research can go to the subjects instead of recruiting subjects to come to laboratories located on campus. The truck could also be used to study events as they unfold — for example, the effect of exhaustion on marathon runners crossing the finishing line or the effects of alcohol on the judgment of people tailgating outside Heinz Field before a Steelers game.      

"By bringing experiments to the subjects, Carnegie Mellon is at the forefront of data gathering," said George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon and a member of the CBDR.    

Loewenstein has been a pioneer in the use of new sources of data, from museum visitors and airline travelers waiting at gates to potential jurors waiting at the courthouse to hear whether they will serve on a jury. Recently, Loewenstein has investigated the factors that influence people's decision to buy lottery tickets — an irrational economic activity — through surveys of travelers waiting to board Greyhound buses. Drawing on such diverse groups provides a more representative base of subjects who are less likely to be knowledgeable about, and hence defensive toward, experimentation, Loewenstein said.

In addition, the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse (PLSG) plans to use the Data Truck as a mobile laboratory that will travel to underserved middle schools throughout the region to expose students to hands-on opportunities in life sciences and related areas, and motivate them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. The PLSG has developed five curricular modules that science teachers can incorporate into their lessons, both before and after a visit from the mobile laboratory.     

"We want to inspire teachers and students through inquiry-based lessons focused on some of today's newest and most exciting areas of science, technology, engineering and math," said John W. Manzetti, president and CEO of the PLSG. "We are pleased to provide the Data Truck laboratory and equipment to school districts that do not currently have access to high-tech facilities so they can provide their student population with valuable and fun hands-on scientific experimentation."