Advanced Training Institute on Nonlinear Methods a Hit

A challenging training session unique to the University of Cincinnati's psychology department is attracting attendees, and attention, on a global basis.

Sponsored by the American Psychological Association, UC's annual Advanced Training Institute on Nonlinear Methods gives professors and students alike firsthand experience with analyzing data for nonlinear structure.

"We put together the Institute across several months' time in 2006, including a complete run-through before we tried it on students," said Guy Van Orden, professor of psychology. "The feedback has been great and we are slated to do it again next year."

As the ATI at UC is the only training program of its kind for psychologists, the experience is helpful for all who tackle it, said Van Orden, who received his PhD in psychology from University of California San Diego in 1984. His current research interests are complexity theory and nonlinear methods applied to problems of cognition and action.

"It almost goes without saying that human behavior is strongly nonlinear. How else could a person change their mind, initiate a new course of study, set goals and achieve them or be creative?" he said. "Nonetheless, only a handful of graduate programs in the world include any instruction in the mathematics of nonlinear dynamics and even fewer teach the kind of methods used to analyze nonlinear behavior. Nonlinear systems are the only formal modeling systems that can mimic, in their crude mathematical way, qualitative changes in behavior or creative patterns of behavior."

In 2006, the session drew mostly graduate students and postdoctoral students from around the world – for example, Russia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and France – and across the United States: New Mexico, Florida, Minnesota and Connecticut. This year, however, in addition to graduate and postdoctoral students from around the nation and world, professors from the universities of Cincinnati, Kentucky, Arizona and Nevada-Las Vegas were in attendance for the June ATI. Several students on a waiting list could not be accommodated.

Along with Van Orden, other faculty for this year's ATI included Michael Riley and Kevin Shockley, UC, Michael Turvey and Claudia Carello, University of Connecticut, John Holden, California State University, and Rick Dale, University of Memphis. Van Orden joined the UC faculty, he said, because he wanted to join Riley and Shockley to create a focus on theory and methods of nonlinear analysis.

"Mike and Kevin were very fortuitous hires by UC because they are both expert in nonlinear methods," he said. "I wanted to be part of their new kind of department of psychology. Coincidentally, I was approached by the American Psychological Association about organizing an Advanced Training Institute on Nonlinear Methods. The confluence of these events has greatly raised our visibility as the place to learn nonlinear methods in behavior sciences."

When Van Orden first became interested in learning nonlinear methods, he said, he found that they were mostly available in the journals of various scientific disciplines.

"For example, I focused on fractal methods used by physiologists because their methods seemed to fit the problem I was working on, namely the fractal structure inherent in measurement of cognitive activity," he said. "The methods were simply too new and had not filtered down to more mainstream texts."

Then, in 2002, he began a four-year stint as a program officer at the National Science Foundation.

"My first week on the job, I was asked to develop something of a pet project. I knew immediately that I wanted be part of publishing a book on nonlinear methods and I recruited Michael Riley to organize the project," he said.

Their collaboration resulted in "Contemporary Nonlinear Methods for Behavioral Scientists: A Webbook Tutorial," a free download available from the NSF Web site of the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.

"It has been downloaded, in part or in whole, over 2,000 times at last count," Van Orden said.

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