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Full House: A Winning Hand - Wooldridge's Lab Welcomes Undergraduates Into High-Level Research


Doug Peterson

Professor Abigail Wooldridge.
Professor Abigail Wooldridge.

“With both graduate students and undergrads, I have a full house in my lab—such a full house,” says ISE Professor Abigail Wooldridge.

When Wooldridge joined ISE in 2018, she immediately began to involve undergraduates in her research. Since then, she has worked with anywhere from three to four undergraduates at a time, making her lab a busy, bustling place.

“It’s a balancing act,” Wooldridge says. She doesn’t want her lab to get too crowded because she wants to be able to pair each undergraduate with a graduate student. The undergrads in her lab work on all types of cutting-edge research on human factors, such as evaluating a virtual-reality app for training clinicians, assessing the new mobile laboratory for COVID-19 testing, and analyzing what happens when trauma patients are moved from the operating room to the intensive care unit.

“I’m not a professor only because I love research,” Wooldridge says. “I also really enjoy teaching, and this work is another way I get to teach undergrads.”

One of her research projects brought in three undergraduate students to evaluate a new app that trains clinicians on the use of “code carts.” A code cart, or crash cart as it is sometimes called, looks like an ordinary wheeled cabinet with rows of drawers. But when it was introduced in the United States in the 1960s, this unassuming cart revolutionized the way emergencies were handled. The cart organized, in one portable unit, the essential equipment that medical personnel need in an emergency.

Now, Wooldridge and the Jump Simulation Center in Peoria, Illinois, are revolutionizing the way nurses and doctors are trained to use a pediatric code cart. The Jump Simulation Center developed a training app, which uses an augmented reality code cart to teach clinicians where to find supplies in the cart. Wooldridge’s team has been testing the effectiveness of the app, and the initial results are promising.

The three undergraduates, Anthony Composto and John Morgan in ISE and Ashley Mitchell in Bioengineering, did extensive analysis of the app. What’s more, Morgan was the primary author of one of the team’s papers, which won first place in the student paper competition for the Health Care Technical Group at the annual meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in October.

“As the first author, John wrote the bulk of the paper,” Wooldridge says. “It’s very unusual for a paper to be led by an undergraduate. And undergraduates almost never win that competition.”

Morgan says the code-cart project was the first time he had ever written an academic research paper, and he says it taught him how to do technical writing and communicate statistical results. The project also helped him to learn R statistical software, with guidance from one of the graduate students on the team, Jyotika Roychowdhury. He says Wooldridge’s lab was a “great environment” as he analyzed data on the usability of the new code-cart training app.

A fully stocked code cart is not often available for training purposes, so the app solves this problem, Morgan explains. When you aim your phone’s camera at an empty space, the app will project a virtual code cart in that spot. Clinicians can then use the app to open drawers in the virtual code cart and click on various items to see what they do. They can even compete with other learners in timed searches for supplies or go through specific scenarios in which they need to locate materials.

For this project, the research team concentrated on training clinicians to locate 10 items in a pediatric code cart, such as an IV catheter, needle decompression kit, and oxygen mask for a child.

The new app was tested with nurses, nurse educators, and attending physicians, who then answered 53 questions, including items on the System Usability Scale (SUS), developed by usability specialist John Brooke in 1995. Morgan used this survey information to calculate a SUS score of 82.5, which he says was pretty good for a new app in its initial testing phase.

Composto and Mitchell, meanwhile, worked on data collected by Tobii Pro eye-tracking glasses. Before and after using the app, clinicians wore the eye-tracking glasses while using the real code cart to search for the 10 items. By gathering data from the glasses, researchers examined eye “fixations,” which is when users focus on a particular location. After clinicians used the training app, the number of fixations went down while duration increased when using the real code cart, a potential indicator of improved expertise.

Many of the undergraduates in Wooldridge’s lab came to her as part of the U of I’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. “When I work with an undergraduate, I try to assess their career goals and what skills they want to develop,” she says. “Then I try to find a spot in a project that will teach them new things that will set them apart when they’re pursuing the career they want. But I’m also secretly hoping they’ll fall in love with research and will want to go on to complete a graduate degree.”

Wooldridge’s first undergraduate researcher was ISE student RuthAnn Haefli, who analyzed qualitative data about health care transitions, such as the transfer of patients from the operating room to the intensive care unit—a crucial handoff in which accurate, timely communication is vital among the nurses and doctors. So far, the research team has run seven simulations, in which physicians and nurses simulate the transition of a pediatric trauma patient to a high-fidelity simulation space that looks exactly like an intensive care unit. Then they surveyed the physicians and nurses on how well the handoff went—what worked, what didn’t, and what could have been improved.

Out of this research, Haefli contributed to an award-winning paper, for which Wooldridge led the writing. It won a best paper award at the International Conference on Quantitative Ethnography in 2019.

“RuthAnn did such a phenomenal job that I became even more enthused about involving undergraduate students in my research group,” Wooldridge says. 

After Haefli graduated, another ISE student, Maya Burgard, stepped in to continue analyzing qualitative data from the health care handoffs, and she also helped Wooldridge do some secondary data coding.

Not all of the undergrads in her lab are from engineering, however. Madison Kaufman, an undergrad from the College of Applied Health Sciences, worked with Wooldridge during the summer and fall of 2019, conducting a literature review looking at human factors and health inequity—differences in access to health care or health care outcomes due to race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or even whether a patient lives in a rural or urban area.

In addition, Ariel Alexander, a chemistry undergrad, analyzed survey data that Wooldridge had gathered from human factors professionals. This survey focused on their thoughts about using human factors research to address issues related to diversity and social justice. One such example is designing technology to make it accessible to those who are blind or have low vision.

Wooldridge also conducted a focus group with the same human factors professionals on diversity and social justice. The focus group data was analyzed in part by yet another ISE undergrad, Mia Spiwak.

Some the undergrads get involved with multiple projects, Wooldridge notes. Ashley Mitchell, the Bioengineering undergrad, has also been helping with the failure modes and effects analysis of Wooldridge’s mobileSHIELD project. MobileSHIELD is a mobile testing laboratory that can do COVID-19 testing from a tractor-trailer driven all around the state.

“When we design a new process or evaluate an existing process, we like to think about what can go wrong, how likely it is to go wrong, and what happens if it goes wrong,” Wooldridge says. “Failure modes and effects analysis is one of the techniques we use to do that.”

John Morgan also had a chance to get involved in a second project—the research on health care handoffs. According to Wooldridge, he did some high-level data analysis for this work.

“I remember that when John approached me to do research, he was a little shy,” she says. “But over the course of the last 18 months, he’s really developed—and not just in technical skills. Now he can go out and talk to people who are PhDs or physicians and get them excited about the work he has done. When I see students connect with the research, when I see students blossom, that’s really exciting. I love seeing the light bulbs come on.”

Morgan says his undergraduate research experience has helped point him in the direction of data processing. He just graduated at the end of 2020 and has landed a job doing price analysis for W.W. Grainger, Inc., a Fortune 500 industrial supply company.

As Wooldridge puts it, “I like to think that the fact that John has done some very advanced statistical analysis as an undergrad made a difference.”

“I would definitely recommend undergraduate research to other students,” Morgan says. “This work helped me mold my career path. If I had known about the REU program before, I would have tried to do undergraduate research every single semester. I honestly think it was one of my best experiences in college.”