Editor's note: This is an extended version of the News Scan story "Expert Education," from the June 2010 Scientific American.
DEATH VALLEY, CALIF. —The dozen students and scientists spread over an area called Furnace Creek looked like cyborgs in floppy hats scrabbling over the boulders. Before hammering chips off rocks, they inspected them with magnifying lenses held up next to eyeglasses sporting miniature cameras and infrared lights.
A seasoned geologist could tease out a history of earthshaking clashes here from evidence in the terrain—a break in a steep grey slope, for instance, suggested a fault at work fracturing the landscape. The aim now of the cameras was to see how researchers' eyes darted across this scene, to figure out how experienced minds unconsciously scan the world for clues that point the way to discoveries.
On this expedition out in Death Valley—where driest, hottest and lowest places on the continent are found — the scientists are investigating how geologists view landscapes, but such research could very well delve into how detectives analyze crime scenes or soldiers look for camouflaged targets or distinguish between friend and foe when storming rooms. Researchers then perhaps could train neophytes with virtual reality displays that simulate environments of interest.
"We know a lot about how to educate people on facts, but we know almost nothing about how to educate people on acquiring perceptual skills other than lots of repetition, which can be very time-consuming and expensive," says cognitive scientist Robert Jacobs at the University of Rochester. "It would be great to develop more effective training procedures."
The key here is a wearable eye-tracking device that can monitor what people look at in a natural environment. It consists of two lightweight video cameras mounted on eyeglass frames—one pointed at what a person is seeing, the other pointed at the person's right eye, tracking its movements with the help of a little infrared LED that shines an invisible beam onto the eye.
Two camcorders in a slim backpack record video from the cameras, data that eye-tracking programs then process later. "Most other eye-tracking devices do eye-tracking simultaneously, but then people are carrying around computers and it's much more cumbersome," says imaging scientist Jeff Pelz at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "Ours is an incredibly stripped-down design."
The novice and seasoned geologists from the University of Rochester have gone out with the eye-trackers about four times a day over their two-week field trip across California, which took them from San Francisco by the San Andreas Fault through the snowy Sierra Nevada near Yosemite National Park here to the harshest area of the U.S. "Death Valley is a great place, where one can really see active geology first-hand — forces that are shaping the crust of the earth," says geophysicist John Tarduno of the University of Rochester. "Most people think of Death Valley as this big hole because it's below sea level, and that's true at the heart of it, but right adjacent is an 11,000-foot mountain."