Work Before Pleasure?
Or Maybe This Job Is Both!
Fun and games are actually part of Dr. Randy Astwood’s job at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (TSD). One of his research interests as a research psychologist at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) in Orlando is the use of game-based systems for military training purposes.
Gaming technologies have features in common with military training simulations and are being evaluated for their potential use in teaching mission-related tasks. One experiment uses a game program to measure the performance of student research subjects. “The gaming technology we use in our research is medium fidelity … not as exciting as PlayStation,” says Astwood. “But it’s for training purposes, not entertainment. Our research volunteers find the games interesting, though, because they get to do things like blow up virtual tanks, and they like doing that!” He and his fellow researchers then analyze the data generated as part of a complex process involved in developing military simulation technologies.
Astwood also has made substantial contributions in developing laptop simulators for training Marine forward observers (FOs). These specialists identify targets, call in artillery or mortar fire, and assess and adjust as needed. For his dissertation Astwood used an experimental version of the FO laptop simulator to evaluate training feedback with the goal of improving simulation accuracy and training effectiveness. He continues to devote research time to FO simulation technologies even as his research portfolio has expanded since earning his doctorate degree in 2009.
Since then, Astwood’s research interests include developing adaptive training methodologies for use in submarine piloting and navigation (SPAN) training simulators. “Submariners go through a training pipeline that includes shore-based training to practice operating a submarine and on-the-job experience aboard a deployed vessel,” he explains. “Our objective is to implement adaptive instructional strategies within SPAN trainers and determine their effectiveness compared with non-adaptive SPAN trainers.”
Reflecting on how he came into this critical line of research, Astwood says, “It almost seems like I grew up in this lab.” He was raised in the small rural town of Lehigh Acres, Fla. During high school he discovered his dual talents in science and sports, taking courses such as AP physics and honors chemistry and then hitting the gridiron after school. He graduated in 1998 and went on to play football at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, N.C. After deciding to end his football career, he eventually moved to the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando and finished his undergraduate degree.
At UCF Astwood enrolled in a psychology course that would change the trajectory of his career. He became fascinated with industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology, a discipline in which psychological methods are applied to issues of critical importance in the workplace, such as workforce training and performance effectiveness. About the same time, his friend and fellow UCF student, David Holness, convinced Astwood to join him as an undergraduate intern at NAWCTSD. He was accepted and began assisting on projects that applied the theories he was learning in college to the development of Navy training systems.
One interesting experiment, Astwood recalls, required research participants to determine whether simulated air contacts were friendly or hostile and then take the appropriate actions based on the contacts’ intentions. Astwood helped assess the effectiveness of different types of feedback from the air defense warfare training. Other duties as an intern included recruiting, scheduling, and overseeing UCF students who volunteered as research participants in the experiments.
Astwood stayed at UCF after graduation to pursue his master’s degree in I/O psychology, continuing to absorb theory in graduate school and gaining additional practical lab experience at NAWCTSD. During his advanced studies, he also was exposed to human-factors psychology, an integrative practice-and-design approach that focuses on the interactions between people and their environment. Human-factors psychology can help explain how soldiers, sailors, and Marines react in battle.
In May 2006, after earning his master’s degree in I/O psychology, Astwood joined NAWCTSD as a full-time Navy civilian researcher. Not ready to rest on his laurels, he continued to pursue his doctorate, which he finished in the summer of 2009.
Throughout the time Astwood was laying the foundation for his career, he still found time to maintain fitness by working out in the gym and running. He also likes to tinker with his pride and joy, a 1995 Impala Super Sport. He recently married Anna, a former fellow UCF student who has a graduate degree in counseling and works as a high-school counselor. “I’ve been working less on the car, but I still try to run and lift on a regular basis,” he says. He also has taken up boxing.
As for his future in training simulation research for the Navy, Astwood says, ““I came here in October 2000 as an undergraduate intern and have been here ever since! I see myself doing this for a very long time. I enjoy the work and the people. David Holness is still here too; he sits in the cube right across from me. It’s such a pleasure to have a job where you actually apply what you learned in school!”