With a $210,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, UCF researchers are studying different learning techniques to understand how to best train people to pick out guns, knives and other threatening objects as they pass through airport X-ray machines.
The researchers' findings, along with results of similar studies at other universities, will help the FAA and Transportation Security Administration determine the best procedures to train new screeners. The TSA oversees the hiring and training of screeners.
The results may eventually lead to improved safety and more convenience for travelers, said Stephen Fiore, a scientist at UCF's Institute for Simulation and Training.
"Travelers want to be safer without being inconvenienced very much," he said. "If screeners are experts at this task, they'll be more accurate and also are likely to be faster."
Increasing the pace at which screeners accurately work can be especially valuable over holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, when airport lines can be long. AAA has projected that 335,000 Floridians will travel by air this weekend.
In an early phase of the project, which began late last year, Fiore and his colleagues had 39 undergraduate students identify threatening objects in computerized X-ray images the researchers created. They were trying to see if students are more likely to identify a threatening object in a simulated suitcase if they were first shown the object in an uncluttered X-ray image or in an image that included many other items.
Results so far show that some students - those who are good at visualizing and mentally rotating images - learned better with the mostly full simulated suitcases, while others learned better when the suitcases showed only the threatening object. Fiore said this type of research shows how technology can be used to adapt training techniques to fit individual learners.
In the coming months, the researchers plan to analyze how other factors, such as the direction in which a threatening object is facing and whether several items overlap each other, affect students' abilities to detect threatening objects.
UCF's research is funded through summer 2004. Fiore said future funding depends on the size of FAA research budgets.
Fiore is director of the Consortium for Research in Adaptive Distributed Learning Environments at the Institute for Simulation and Training. He also is a research scientist with UCF's Team Performance Laboratory. In addition to Fiore, the research team includes Florian Jentsch, director of the Team Performance Laboratory; Clint Bowers, a psychology professor and assistant dean of research for the College of Arts and Sciences; and Eduardo Salas, a psychology professor who also is director of the Department for Human Systems Integrated Research at the Institute for Simulation and Training.
Fiore, Jentsch and graduate student Sandro Scielzo of the Department of Psychology presented initial results of their research this month at the annual conference of the Psychonomic Society in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Fiore said a handful of other universities, including the University of California at Davis and Brigham and Women's Hospital/Harvard Medical School, have received or are receiving funding to try to improve training for screeners. Some of the topics addressed include how fatigue and distractions affect screeners' abilities to detect threatening objects and how screeners learn to look for important features on objects, such as the trigger of a gun.