Business

With $900K NASA grant, University of Iowa professor researches how astronauts stay focused during missions

Daniel Newton, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Busi
Daniel Newton, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. (Photo courtesy of University of Iowa Office of Strategic Communication)

Across a number of white-collar jobs, “workplace engagement” often is bounced around as a nebulous buzzword — an ideal employees should strive toward but one that does not carry major repercussions when they don’t.

But distracted employees could bring about “disastrous” results in more high-pressure positions, ranging from terrestrial air traffic control or surgical workers to astronauts and cosmonauts on space missions, said Daniel Newton, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.

Newton is in his fifth year of researching how engagement fluctuates when people switch from task to task, with backing from a $900,000 grant he and two colleagues received from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration while at Arizona State University.

NASA ultimately could use his findings as part of a series of studies in planning long-term voyages to the International Space Station or Mars.

During spacefaring trips, Newton said, an astronaut likely must transition among tasks, including some that could be engaging or demanding and others that are more mundane.

“If someone is engrossed in a certain task but then have to switch to something else that maybe is less engaging ... there’s this carry-over that maybe can impede their subsequent performance, because they’re maybe ruminating about what they were doing in the past,” Newton said, likening the residual engagement to when someone who stares into the sun still can see its shape after looking away.

Alternatively, as a result of anticipatory engagement, he continued, an astronaut could struggle to focus on a straightforward task when they’re aware a larger one awaits over the horizon.

Through his research to date, Newton has interviewed crew members in long-term isolation at NASA’s HERA facility in Houston and at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ NEK facility in Moscow, as well as astronauts who had been in space.

There, teams are confined for periods ranging from 30 days to eight months in preparation for spaceflight. Even with training, astronauts still can face a learning curve in adjusting to and transitioning between mission tasks, said Newton, based on his previous interviews.

“Once they have their routines down, they may still have difficulty transitioning, not because it’s something that’s new; it could be that they’re really bored,” he said.

Ultimately, Newton said, he hopes to build mathematical models to determine how daily duties could be stacked — during a day or across different days — to maximize engagement, both for astronauts and Earth-based workers, too.

One strategy, he said, could involve employees starting their work day with a more meaningful task than checking their emails.

In the corporate world, “They want you to move seamlessly from engaging task to engaging task,” he said. “We would say, you could expect that, but that would actually be kind of hard. (The employee) might not be at their mental best if they’re working, the boss knocks on your door and says, ‘Hey, we need you in this meeting,’ and they were involved in something else.”

With a more realistic understanding of engagement, Newton said, that workplace could instead build in a few minutes of transition time for employees.

“That way, they could dial it down, and if not outright finish their task, at least put it to bed,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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