At the food court: Want to take a CMU survey with that?


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Lunchtime at the food court: pizza, sodas, scientific research.

Carnegie Mellon University opened the doors yesterday to its Research Cafe, a 1,700-square-foot lab on the second floor of Downtown's Fifth Avenue Place.

The grand opening, which continues through tomorrow, offers cookies, brownies and the chance to win a $100 Giant Eagle gift card to anyone donating their spare time to participate in a survey.

"More than any other research group in the country, we have pioneered taking our experiments to the public," said George Loewenstein, CMU professor and a steering committee member of the university's Center for Behavioral Decision Research.

The center has turned the old Sam Goody music store into a three-room research lab that beckons participants from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturdays. Compensation for their time will vary widely, from a few dollars' worth of food coupons for short surveys, to more than $100 cash for ongoing, intensive studies.

"The rewards are nice, but hopefully even nicer is the more fulfilling opportunity to be a part of the research," Dr. Loewenstein said. "A lot of the projects are very interesting."

The physical setup was engineered by Bob Reppe, CMU director of design. He said the project took about nine months. The school has agreed to rent the space for at least a year.

The College of Humanities and Social Sciences, along with the H. John Heinz III College and the Tepper School of Business, will share the research facility, which will be constantly staffed by university researchers.

When the doors opened yesterday, curious lunchtime patrons trickled into the outer lobby area. There were wireless computers set up for a survey run by doctorate candidate Leslie Johns. The experiment was quick, and in the interest of science, the details must remain a mystery.

"It's crucial that people not know too much about it [beforehand]," Ms. Johns said, fearing the data otherwise would be tainted.

Two long-range studies involve marriage research and the effects of computer games designed to improve brain health among the elderly. Besides the outer lobby area for walk-in surveys, the Research Cafe features a group survey room with table space for up to 12 people, and another room where group experiments will be conducted among participants working individually at computers, or filling out paper surveys.

The Highmark Corp., the main tenant at Fifth Avenue Place, had been advertising the lab to employees and in its public relations bulletins.

"I think it's a win-win situation: First, Highmark is very enthusiastic about cooperating with academic community. And the vendors in the food court are happy if the lab brings people in, especially at lunchtime," said Dr. Loewenstein.

Researchers are hoping to attract a nice cross section of the population, from Highmark employees to homeless people.

Ms. Johns said she expected to collect about 200 opinions for this particular study, but that other studies might involve far larger numbers.

This isn't the first time CMU has ventured off-campus in the name of science. The center's 36-foot-long "data truck" regularly makes the rounds all over the city, from football game parking lots to nights on the South Side ("when we want to do studies with inebriated people," Dr. Loewenstein said).

Yesterday, before the busiest part of the lunch-hour rush began, Dr. Loewenstein strode out into the food court and approached diners to see if they would be willing to drop by later.

"I'm not shy," he said.

Indeed, years ago on a flight, he passed out surveys to his fellow airline passengers. An attendant intercepted the papers and informed him that there was a good chance he would be met by law enforcement once they landed.

"So for the next several minutes, I'm sitting there anxiously waiting for the unpleasant disembarkation ... and she emerged from the cockpit with a big smile and said 'I'm really sorry.' "

"She said the captain was getting an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago and was very interested in my survey."

CMU researchers constantly seek diversity among their participants. Nothing against having students in studies, they say, but your average sophomore only represents a narrow segment of the culture. Thus, the Research Cafe promises something new.

"We are so excited to have a whole different spectrum of the population," said Jessica Kopsic, a member of the center's team.

There was a wireless slowdown that proved to be the only glitch yesterday, but even that was fortuitous, as it added one more to the survey pool.

"Excellent," said Joachim Vosgerau, an assistant professor of marketing at the Tepper School. "I just recruited the guy who is installing our Internet."


Maria Sciullo can be reached at msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.


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