UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Michael McNeese, tenured professor of information sciences and technology (IST) and one of the College of IST’s founding faculty members, is tying up loose ends before his retirement from Penn State.
McNeese was hired in August 2000, just one year after the college was established in 1999. In 2004, he became one of the first IST professors to earn tenure and has since served as an administrator for a significant portion of his career in IST. A cognitive scientist, he was promoted to professor in charge in 2007 before becoming associate dean for research, graduate studies and academic affairs in 2010, and then senior associate dean from 2012 to 2014. He currently serves as the director of the Multidisciplinary Initiatives in Naturalistic Decision Systems (MINDS) group in IST. McNeese’s unique career has spanned the breadth of experience, but it’s clear that he isn’t ready to slow down after his retirement this summer.
For the next few months, he’ll be readying the User Science and Engineering (USE) lab for his departure, a lab that he opened when he started at the college and is home to interdisciplinary research conducted by the MINDS group.
McNeese said that one of the great pleasures during his tenure at IST has been working with students and cultivating communication between alumni of the MINDS group. Through the MINDS group, students study the socio-cognitive sciences; the engineering design of cognitive technologies; and conduct theoretical research pertaining to distributed cognition, naturalistic decision-making, perceptual learning, mental models, situation awareness, analogical problem-solving, and social constructivism. Basically, said McNeese, the MINDS group studies minds, and how they interface with each other and their work.
“If you asked me what I’m most proud of at the college, I’d say the work I’ve done with grad students — graduates of the MINDS lab program,” said McNeese. “We try to keep that group intact and in touch as much as possible.” The last piece of work that McNeese will complete before he retires is editing a book on cognitive systems engineering. The project ties into the MINDS group because it’s a collective product in which the bulk of the chapters were written by doctoral alumni or colleagues of the College of IST.
The remainder of the book, titled “Cognitive Systems Engineering: An Integrated Living Laboratory Framework,” was written by McNeese and his co-editor, Peter Forster, senior lecturer and associate dean for online and professional education in IST. The book is scheduled for release in May.
“Mike is a mentor, colleague and friend, and working with him in the MINDS lab has been an incredible research learning experience for me,” said Forster. “I appreciate his willingness to include me and his patience. His tutelage has made me a better researcher, teacher and administrator — and I look forward to continuing to collaborate with him.”
One special feature of the book is that it is dedicated in honor of David Hall, former dean of the College of IST and close friend to both McNeese and Forster. McNeese had planned to include Hall as a co-editor of the book before his death in 2015.
“I feel really good about the book being dedicated to Dave, and that it was written by so many of my former students who have graduated and gone on to careers of their own, and by my colleagues who are research partners,” said McNeese. “That is very special to me.”
McNeese leaves behind a varied legacy at the college, as the founder and director of the USE lab and MINDS group; as a researcher, writer and instructor; as an administrator; and also as a benefactor. Several years ago, McNeese gave a $50,000 trustee scholarship to the College of IST in honor of his mother and father to be used for students experiencing economic hardship.
“I wanted to honor my mother and father, who always supported me in my academic work and were advocates of learning and an interdisciplinary approach to life,” said McNeese. “That’s something that is very gratifying — that there is a legacy for mom and dad, who always encouraged creativity and discovery. What I have accomplished in my life, I attribute to them, and to faith in the Lord.”
When he a very young child, McNeese’s father taught him to play chess, and quickly learned he was good enough to beat adults at the game. “That’s where I got interested in solving problems and figuring things out — ‘computing,’ when I discovered changing patterns on the board, and that I could recognize a play before it happened,” said McNeese. “That really got me interested in games, decision-making and problem-solving.”
Ever since, he has cultivated an interest in invention, design and discovery that led him to a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in experimental-cognitive psychology, both from the University of Dayton. He went on to earn a doctorate in interdisciplinary cognitive science from Vanderbilt University, where he specialized in problem-solving, memory and learning, and artificial intelligence.
McNeese worked for 23 years primarily as an engineering research psychologist and senior scientist for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where he specialized in the areas of team cognition — looking at cognitive science through the lens of teamwork — human-computer interaction, and computer-supported cooperative work. While at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, McNeese was part of a team responsible for redesigning the F-16 Falcon fighter jet cockpit and redesigning the NORAD facility from a collaborative systems perspective, as well as designing the standard for human-computer interaction for all U.S. Air Force aeronautical systems. He earned his doctorate degree in 2002, whereupon he was appointed director of a research laboratory.
After more than 40 years working in cognitive science and technology, McNeese said he is ready to switch gears. He looks at his retirement not as an end of his work, but a reinvention, which he plans to spend with his wife, Judy. “I feel like I’ve turbo-blasted the analytical scientific parts of my brain, which has been focused-in for 46 years or more. What I want to do is expand more of the aesthetic, artistic, creative part of my brain,” he said.
“Not that you can’t be creative in science, because you can, but it’s different to draw a picture versus making a creative experimental design. I want to get back to writing, art, and my wife and I are both interested in photography, so one thing we’d like to do is combine travel, writing and photography.
“I still have an interest in creative writing, and I’d love to do more of that. Or maybe I’ll get a potter’s wheel ... who knows!”