Window to the Mind

The University of Northern Iowa  has one of the largest Teacher Education  programs in the nation.  Dr. Benjamin Forsyth,  Department Head of Education Psychology and Foundations is conducting eye-movement research to help expert and novice teachers become the best they can be.

Tobii T60 -- Computer screen with built in sensors.While pursuing a degree in Physics from Brigham Young University, Dr. Forsyth developed a desire to become a teacher and  added a teaching certificate to his resume.  Through this process Dr. Forsyth was introduced to the psychology of teaching and learning, and this intriguing topic eventually led him to Michigan State to obtain his PhD in Educational Psychology.   

Dr. Forsyth, a cognitive scientist, studies how the mind works and especially how learning occurs.  Cognitive scientists approach understanding how the mind works by drawing upon many fields of knowledge such as psychology, linguistics, education, philosophy, computer science and artificial intelligence.  Eye tracking technology assists Dr. Forsyth in his research of how a person learns.

Eye tracking is a sensor technology that is able to determine exactly where eyes are looking and focusing.  Using the person’s pupil, “glint” of her eye, and a lot of mathematics, the program is able to follow the path of the eye.  It can determine where the eyes go, what they see, and what they stop to focus on.  It can also determine if the eyes go back to look at something again.  What a person focuses on provides insight to her thinking.

Dr. Forsyth uses two types of eye trackers.  The first one is the Tobii T60.  It is a computer screen with small cameras imbedded into the screen to watch and record eye movement.  This is useful for studying how different groups of people respond to educational videos, marketing research, and much more.  

Tobii Pro GlassesRecently, Dr. Forsyth acquired the Tobii Pro Glasses which is a wearable eye tracker.  The glasses have six sensors that track everywhere the user is looking.  The Tobii Pro is a portable device.  It has a battery and data storage pack, so information can be obtained in almost any situation and location.  It records the eyes and what they are looking at simultaneously.   The software can measure pupil dilation, which is another marker of how much the user is thinking about the subject she is focusing on. 

Past research in the teaching profession has relied on self-report by the teacher.  This is asking the teacher what she saw during a particular time.   However, what we remember is influenced by our experience and beliefs which can alter what we think we saw.  For example, a real-estate agent will view a home differently than a burglar will for the same exact house.  The real-estate agent will notice aspects of the home that will help it sell or have some interest to clients.  The burglar will look for the best way to break in.  What we remember is also affected by time.  Sometimes what a person says she saw may not be as accurate or give the full picture compared to the eye tracker.

Eye-tracking data can be combined with biometric responses such as EEG’s or galvanic skin tests.  The electroencephalogram (EEG) tracks and records brain waves.  Galvanic skin tests measure the responses of the skin, such as sweat, and is often used in lie-detector tests.  This additional information shows researchers many different bodily responses to situations or ideas.  The biometrics can be studied to give more in depth information.  The researcher is able to compare the simultaneous information of brain waves, skin response and what the eye is focusing on for the same activity.  The researcher may see what part of the brain is active or how a person feels when focusing on a subject or situation.      is also affected by time.  Sometimes what a person says she saw may not be as accurate or give the full picture compared to the eye tracker. 

Dr. Benjamin ForsythHowever, Dr. Forsyth is focused on the eye-tracking portion only.  You may have heard the saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but Dr. Forsyth believes that the “eyes are the window to the mind.”  By studying the eyes, we can get glimpses into the mind to better understand it.  By better understanding the mind,  people can become better teachers, motivators, and doctors.  Not only can this research be utilized in teaching and marketing but also the medical field.  Some researchers are using the technology to study patients with Alzheimer's and dementia.

Dr. Forsyth would like to take this technology into the classroom.  He would like to study the difference between a novice teacher and one who is more experienced, especially those who are considered some of the best in their fields.  The current model shows that more experienced teachers will take in information quickly and without focusing on any particular activity for long periods of time, but still be aware and effective.  Novice teachers tend to focus on problems or specific students and not notice what is going on in another area of the classroom.  In learning more about this model, Dr. Forsyth can then try to break it and help new teachers become better prepared for the classroom setting.  He wonders: Can the experienced teachers be trained to pick up more details in a situation?  Can the novice teachers be encouraged to relax and notice other details around the classroom? 

This is just the beginning of  how the eye tracking technology can be used to understand people and their minds.  UNI STEM will be tracking Dr. Forsyth’s progress with his research and follow where else it will take him and educators.


Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 09-18-18

Come meet Dr. Mary Skopec, Executive Director of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory

Iowa Lakeside Laboratory & UNI with Mary Skopec

Thursday, September 13, 12:00 – 1:00pm, Rod Library, Room 287

UNI Faculty, Staff, and Students from all disciplines - Discuss opportunities for use of Lakeside resources for coursework. 

Lakeside is UNI's far west campus!  Lakeside facilities are available for single class sessions, field trips, and entire courses.  Lakeside has laboratory spaces, internet access, and publicly available water quality data.  Lakeside's venue puts you close to all of Iowa's native landscapes (lake, prairie, woodland, wetland) and makes a perfect setting for field courses in the sciences and for visual arts, music, writing and more.  Learn about Lakeside as a possible sabbatical location too.

UNI Faculty and staff may also sign up for the UNI Field Trip to Iowa Lakeside Lab October 15 & 16.

In the field at Lakeside Lab. On the water at Lakeside Lab Exploring and protecting Iowa's preserve system at Iowa Lakeside Lab
Marcy Seavey, UNI STEM Coordinator
Posted: 09-13-18

Keyaira Phillips, TAPP Alumna & 20 Under 40 Winner

UNI TAPP Alumna, Keyaira Phillips, had been named as one of the Cedar Valley's 20 Under 40.  This award is given by the WCF Courier to outstanding leaders in the area.  Ms. Phillips has worked at a number of places since graduating from UNI, but is currently at Rockwell Collins as a Senior Sourcing Manager.  (

A STEM Story was written about Ms. Phillips in 2016.  Take a few moments to enjoy learning more about her and her career.

DREAM DEFINED IN DIVERSITY, Alumni Profile, February 2016

Keyaira PhillipsIt all started with a couple of short and simple questions: Who decides what we get and what we do not get?  “I have always been a curvy girl,” says Keyaira Phillips. “So, before it was ‘in’ to be curvy, I had the hardest time finding in Waterloo/Cedar Falls areas a selection of clothes that were trendy and cute, and that fit.”  Of course, Phillips did not know then that “there were actual buyers and teams that pick out clothing assortments and that what was available varied per locations/regions.” However, she knew one thing for sure.  “From drawing outfits when I was younger, to taking sewing classes in high school, I knew that I belonged in the fashion industry in some way, shape or form,” Phillips says. “Those questions and my early desire for style are what initially probed my interest in fashion, ultimately directing me to enroll and major in Textiles and Apparel at UNI.”

She loved the diversity in undergraduate coursework at UNI.  “We were immersed in quality assurance classes which highlighted systematic process of determining whether products meet customers’ expectations and government regulations,” she recounts. “I took product development courses which taught us the technical side to our field (specification writing, creating and constructing patterns, sewing, etc.).”  “We also had CAD (computer-aided design) classes that taught us how to create and render designs on the computer,” she adds. “Lastly were the merchandising and design courses that focused on the business, buying, consumer behavior, and design sides of the fashion industry.”

“They set up the TAPP program this way because you get a holistic overview of career paths that you might want to take or have an interest in,” she says.  Phillips also found the projects to be fun and unique, eye-opening and interesting.  “We had to make a garment out of unconventional materials (pop-cans, playing cards, etc.),” she recounts. “I made a formal wear top and skirt out of different condom wrappers. I know it was extreme but it conveyed the message about safe sex practices, a message that was plaguing college students on campus at the time. It was a huge hit.”

The under-graduate course-work was about diversity in more ways than one.  “In most of my classes, we had to do tons of group work,” Phillips says. “Having been immersed in so many group projects in school allowed me to figure out ways to work well with others and how to communicate with them.”  The lessons in effectively communicating, negotiating and working with others have proved to be a treasure-trove for her.  “When working at John Deere and Target, I had to work with people from all over the world and English wasn’t their first language,” she says. “It was a struggle at first… but having had courses where the themes were communicating effectively, speaking through common language (numbers) helped me build myself into an effective communicator.”  

Keyaira Phillips with Professor Annette Lynch and Nicole Lyricc at the Fashion and Empowerment workshop at UNI.Diversity has marked Phillips’ career path, too.  After graduating from UNI in 2006, she did an internship with Von Maur—the department store chain that sells primarily upscale brand-name apparel, accessories, cosmetics, gifts, jewelry and shoes—in its executive training program for buying and then went into store management.  In 2008, she started her corporate career at the Target headquarters in Minneapolis as a sourcing specialist. She worked with the company’s sourcing services, buying and merchandise planning teams, imports and customs, and Target India and overseas factories, to ensure the best product selection in its stores. In 2011, Phillips ventured into the world of agriculture, having landed a job at John Deere as a planner and buyer supporting its supply chain and management.

Finally, in 2014, she joined Alliant Energy.  At Alliant, she coordinates and manages the purchase of materials, equipment and services to meet internal customer requirements, and is responsible for assuring the lowest total cost supply base and sourcing competitiveness through the procurement process. Simply put, she supervises and tracks everything that the company purchases—from desk chairs to computer equipment—and makes sure that the company gets the best price.  She also manages key contracts, materials, services and commodities, and assists with the development and implementation of strategic, operational, tactical sourcing and logistic planning activities.  Phillips says her leaps across industries have been rewarding. “I had no idea that I would go into agriculture or utilities but I am glad that I did,” says Phillips. “I will eventually get back into the retail industry but I am happy with the experience and skills I have gained so far.”

“Shocking as it may sound since fashion and retail are ever changing in terms of sourcing, merchandising, and product development, I was starting to become complacent at that time,” she recalls.  “I also wanted to diversify my portfolio in terms of carrying over the skills and foundations I had from fashion into other industries,” she adds. “Employees love the diversity within my career.”  She believes her education at UNI has helped her transition from one industry to another.  “There are many things that I can tie together between my studies in college and the work I have done previously and presently, one being the business component,” she says. “Regardless of the product I may source or buy, the basic business fundamentals hold true across the board.”  Diversity is also at the core of her advice for middle and high school students.

“Dream big and know that no job is too big for you,” Phillips says. “Tell people what your passions and dreams are because you never know what connections they might have to get you one step closer to your dream job.”  “Start early networking and job experience,” she adds. “Even if it’s a job shadow, volunteering and doing an internship, start as early as possible. The more experience you have, the more marketable you will be for that dream job.”

Mir Ashfaquzzaman
Posted: 09-07-18