Classroom Update: "Space Shuttles, Nascar, and Decision Making" by Marjorie Cantine

This week, students in my class, “Searching for Extraterrestrial Life” at the J. Austin White Cultural Center in Eudora, Arkansas, made decisions that led to the explosion of a space shuttle and an American tragedy. In all fairness to them, we wanted them to.  

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Professor Jonathan Tugman, who is teaching “Behavioral Psychology, and I teamed up for a special, interdisciplinary case study on decision-making and data analysis. Students from both of our classes worked directly with the data used to make the decision to launch the Challenger shuttle on a chilly January day in 1986. The case study used the original NASA data, but so as to not give away the punchline, framed the case around a NASCAR team facing mechanical difficulties and deciding whether or not to race. Students read and debated the case thoughtfully, plotted and interpreted data, and unanimously arrived at one conclusion: race! The outcome—just as it was for the doomed Challenger mission in 1986—was catastrophic failure, resulting from flawed data analysis and a range of behavioral traps.

Our students learned that to predict failure from data, you must understand the circumstances of both success and failure. They practiced graphing and data management. They learned that incomplete data can lead to bad decision-making, and that we can distort data to match our expectations and hopes without realizing it. They interpreted data, made predictions, and re-interpreted data when presented with new findings. They talked about concepts from behavior psychology, like the escalation of commitment, confirmation bias, and the availability heuristic, alongside the risks and rewards of exploring space, a frequent topic in my class.  

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I’m grateful for the rare opportunity to teach by integrating the social and natural sciences with a case study framed within a historical context—and thankful to my teammate Jonathan for agreeing to try this out. This type of interdisciplinary learning seems to drive home lessons for students in a way that more traditional lectures don’t. Few opportunities to teach across the curriculum in this way exist within the confines of traditional university classes, even though lessons like these better communicate the real complexity and challenges of working on hard problems to our students. It’s a privilege and pleasure to work with students on problems that defy traditional disciplinary boundaries and require them (and us) to bring our whole selves and our full knowledge and intuition about the world. Few of us will decide whether or not to launch a spacecraft, but we will all encounter situations in which we are given limited data, have our own ambitions and hopes, and must make good decisions on behalf of others. I’m delighted to work alongside my students on these genuinely challenging and intellectually rewarding problems.

Jordan Malone