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On U-M Bicentennial, ISD's Human Factors Engineering Short Course Stands Out

On U-M Bicentennial, ISD's Human Factors Engineering Short Course Stands Out

In the October 1959 issue of Michigan Technic magazine, Prof. Paul M. Fitts — not long after establishing the Human Factors Engineering Short Course — touched on an important systems design issue of the day.

"We need long-range research to determine the optimum balance between human and mechanized control of air traffic," he said.

Nearly 60 years and countless technologies later — cell phones, self-driving vehicles, internet apps — the need for practical research and applied knowledge remains. Lucky for those tasked with designing systems and products for human use, so does Fitts' one-of-a-kind course.


As the University of Michigan celebrates its 200th anniversary, Human Factors Engineering stands out among professional development programs both for its longevity and its scope. Sometimes referred to as "Camp Human Factors," what began in 1959 as a course focused on the fundamentals of human performance has since blossomed into a two-week immersion experience, complete with seminars, workshops, tours, and social activities. The result is a comprehensive learning experience unmatched in the field.

"In the age of the internet, there is a tendency to believe that to learn about anything, all one needs to do is Google it," faculty lead Prof. Paul Green says. "In fact, what we often need are the three best references on certain topics with some particular emphasis — an overview of the literature or description of text methods or design recommendations. One gets that from human experts, and there are many in the [course] with information to share."

Green, who joined Fitts as a first-year graduate student in 1961, has been instrumental to the course's success. After Fitts passed away in 1965, Green helped usher in new lecture content to reflect emerging points of view like human information processing, attention, situation awareness, multi-tasking, and cognitive science. On the applied ergonomics side, application-specific lectures were phased out in favor of those focused on more timely subjects like human-centered automation and cognitive models.

The evolving curriculum has become especially important during the Information Age, as rapidly changing technology and consumer products create new and pressing human factors problems.

"Products have become much more complicated and the roadblock to success is often not the technology per se, but how the technology has been designed to suit human needs and capabilities," Green says. "Why have Apple products been successful? The reason is because of the quality of design and ease of use. Ease of use is essential as products and services become more complicated."

While some aspects of the course have changed over the years, others have remained steady. The collection of workshops and small-group activities, for example, hasn't missed a beat over the decades, offering participants the chance to partake in hands-on problem-solving activities. The opportunity to "design" a workstation for an underwater roving vehicle faced with a communications time delay is just one example of the many team-based exercises unique to the course.

Although certain examples used during the course may seem specific, the program's appeal is inarguably broad. Professionals from the military, aerospace, manufacturing, healthcare, telecommunications, and countless other industries make the trip each year, with class sizes often approaching 60-plus students. One year, a designer of body armor enrolled.

"The reason for the broad appeal is because the issues are common," Green says. "For example, people need to be able to read text: that basic problem is the same for a warning legend in an aircraft cockpit or a nuclear power plant control panel or a web page or a perfusion machine."

As long as human factors, ergonomics, design, and human-computer interaction considerations remain important, so too will the need for an experiential learning opportunity like the Human Factors Engineering Short Course. For a program that's stood the test of time — not to mention change — that bodes well for its future.

For information about the Human Factors Engineering Short Course, including sample lecture videos, check out our HFE webpage.