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Mishap investigation training changes course

by Kendahl Johnson
311th Human Systems Wing Public Affairs

11/25/2005 - BROOKS CITY-BASE, Texas (AFPN) -- Figuring out what causes an airplane to crash is no easy task.

But many flight surgeons, aerospace physiologists and some psychologists will be part of an aircraft mishap investigation at some point in their careers.

So the more they know about what to do, the better.
To better prepare students for the day they are part of an investigation, a colonel here helped overhauled the Aircraft Mishap Investigation and Prevention Course. Now, instead of a primarily lecture-based format, students are learning to solve crashes with a hands-on, problem-based learning approach.

"I'm a big fan of experiential education and problem-based learning versus primarily using a passive transfer of information through lectures," Col. Steve Kinne said.

The colonel is the former general preventive medicine residency director at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. To change the course, he evaluated critiques from former students.

Consistently, students said the course was "death by PowerPoint" and "not practical." Students said they didn't leave feeling comfortable of their ability to be part of a safety investigation board.

The boards have a big responsibility. Board convenes after an aircraft mishap to determine what went wrong and how to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.

So the colonel proposed to change the course so it would provide students a much more active, hands-on approach to learning. He got the green light to make changes.

"With power-based learning, you give teams of students problems to solve, access to proper information, guidance and mentorship -- and you let them learn primarily through self-discovery," the colonel said.

Colonel Kinne took over as course director with a goal. He wanted to reengineer the course to a problem-based learning format, using the study of actual aircraft mishap cases. But instead of presenting them through lectures, course instructors presented background information and then allowed teams of students to analyze actual mishap information.

That way students would come up with their own conclusions of what they thought happened and made recommendations on future prevention. Then they would compare their conclusion to the actual safety board's final report.

"Students would examine all the evidence in depth and try to figure out what happened," Colonel Kinne added. "Basically, we are teaching them to be investigators.

“We want them to have an investigative mindset,” he said.

Students also participated in scripted role playing of mishap interviews, analyzed scenarios involving life support equipment failures and studied pieces of equipment salvaged from mishaps.

Geoff Shidler, an engineer from the school's life sciences equipment laboratory and a veteran of more than 150 mishap investigations, helped. He used equipment taken from actual mishaps to instruct students.

"It was like a 'show and tell.' We'd show artifacts from previous mishaps and let them tell us what they learned from examining the equipment," Mr. Shidler said.

A very important element of the course is a hands-on, mishap field exercise. So Colonel Kinne set about creating a new "mock" aircraft crash site.

"I wanted something different from what everyone has seen before. Something that would give students a more realistic idea of what an actual mishap site might be like," the colonel said.

He contacted Denise Martin of the Brooks Development Authority and presented his plan. Ms. Martin jumped on board and assembled a team that helped design a new accident site, complete with a large impact crater. She also introduced him to some contractors who were gutting a building on base to see if they could get him scrap metal to add to the site.

"I spent several weeks dumpster diving -- hauling scrap metal pieces to the accident site and tearing them apart" Colonel Kinne said.

Some volunteers from the school helped the colonel paint the parts and lay them out so it “looked somewhat convincingly like a crash where the aircraft disintegrated on impact," he said.

Some real aircraft parts from Randolph Air Force Base, discarded equipment from the Brooks Life Support Lab, and two fully equipped mannequins completed the realism at the site.

While the crash site was under construction, Colonel Kinne finalized the curriculum and assembled his instructor cadre. He worked with each instructor on the new format and helped prepare them for two weeks of hands-on instruction.

Lt. Col. Thomas Clarke, a key course instructor, presented a mishap from a special operations mission where he'd been a part of the investigation. Presenting real cases in a hands-on format significantly improved student learning, he said.

"Bringing the extra realism of having the students work through actual case data really enhanced the value of the course," Colonel Clark said.

When the course ended, the next step was to gather student evaluations to help determine the success or failure of the revamped course.

The positive response from the students was overwhelming.

"The critiques indicate this course actually exceeded all of our expectations," Colonel Kinne said. "The students all said they were confident that they could immediately be called upon and perform effectively as a safety investigation board member."

The experts agreed with the students.

Dr. Rodger Vanderbeek, director of plans and programs for the 311th Human Systems Wing, is a former pilot physician who has more than a decade of experience with safety investigation boards. He said the new course gives students a much more in-depth and comprehensive approach to analysis.

"The graduates of this course could go out and do a mishap investigation with nearly complete confidence and comfort as an expert investigator," he said. "It gives them a new level of expertise and exposure, making them better equipped to perform a mishap investigation."

Colonel Kinne said experiential education is challenging because it takes more work, creativity and active staff facilitation than lecture-based teaching, but he hopes more course directors follow the example his team has set.

"This is how we should be doing a lot of courses," he said. "It's an extremely powerful method of learning, much more so than sitting in class and listening to lectures all day."

Colonel Kinne will retire soon. But he said he’ll leave the Air Force on a particularly high note, having accomplished something so positive.

(Courtesy of Air Force Materiel Command News Service)

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