Extreme events such as natural or technological disasters challenge society's capabilities both for planning and response. As indicated by the long history of extreme event decision making, a key to successful planning and effective response is flexibility. One approach to achieving flexibility is improvisation: a combined behavioral and cognitive activity that requires creativity under tight time constraint in order to meet performance objectives. Work under this CAREER grant consists of integrated research and education programs designed to improve how society understands, plans for and supports improvisation in response to extreme events. The central challenge of the research program is to improve understanding of improvisation by developing and testing cognitive-level theory about when and how improvisation occurs in emergency response. The first goal of the research program is to produce cognitive-level theory about improvised decision making, derived from a combination of archival research, experimentation and interaction with practitioners. The theory will be expressed in computer-executable form and evaluated via experimentation with emergency response practitioners. The second goal is to integrate the computable theory into a prototype group decision support system, whose impact on decision making will be evaluated via experimentation in a computer-based environment. The central challenge of the education program is to develop and evaluate techniques and technologies to support learning about when and how to improvise in emergency response. The first goal of the educational program is to provide training to emergency response practitioners in making, analyzing and supporting improvised decisions. The second is to introduce high school, undergraduate and graduate students to careers in the field of emergency response. The third is to enable graduate and undergraduate students to participate in the research and education programs. The fourth is to disseminate the results of both programs to research and practitioner communities and to society at large. Integration of research and teaching programs throughout the project will be achieved through the sharing of knowledge and activities both face-to-face and in a virtual community, with oversight of the work shared between the principal investigator and an external Advisory Board.

The intellectual merits of this work are in applying the science of modeling to create knowledge at the intersection of cognitive science, decision making and the field of emergency management, thereby addressing the need to develop interdisciplinary approaches to managing extreme events. The resulting cognitive theory will extend existing scholarship, provide the basis for future studies and be incorporated into educational activities, the efficacy of which will be assessed as part of the research. The broader impacts of this work are in contributing to society's ability to plan for and respond to extreme events. The research program will improve understanding of when and how improvisation occurs, producing results that will be translated into educational materials for students across a wide socioeconomic range. The education program will draw on the research to engender appreciation for and interest in the field of emergency response among high school and university students in an urban setting. Finally, results of the research and education programs will be broadly disseminated to research and practitioner communities and to society at large.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Civil, Mechanical, and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI)
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Dennis Wenger
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Rutgers University
United States
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