Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2023 year in review.
This semester, a team of Arizona State University students saved the U.S. Department of Defense five years of work as part of their Hacking for Defense class. On Tuesday, representatives from the department came to town to thank them.
Hacking for Defense was offered at the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences on ASU’s West campus for the first time this year. The university course is sponsored by the DOD and provides a rare opportunity for students to solve real-world problems for the defense community.
Applied computing students Johnny Tamborrino, Getachew Yirga, Jacob Selover and Alexander Edwards worked on a problem related to weapons qualifications used by the Army National Guard in Ohio. The team’s solution was so effective that plans are underway to implement it into the Army and then into all DOD service branches.
“It was very unexpected,” Tamborrino said. “I was surprised that our program garnered such a response.”
Maj. Mike Antonas, with Ohio's Army National Guard, was one of many who flew into town on Tuesday to watch the students present their project and honor them with a certificate of appreciation and a collectible coin — traditionally given for excellence.
“It blows me away,” Antonas said. “Their brain power humbles me.”
Armed for the challenge
Challenges for the class came from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Special Operations Command units. Students spent the entire semester working directly with DOD personnel, class mentors and other experts, crafting and refining solutions.
“Units come in from all over the country and ask us to solve their problems,” said Drew Trojanowski, assistant vice president of strategic initiatives for ASU Knowledge Enterprise. “And that is what we do.”
The challenge for Ohio’s Army National Guard was prompted by a need to automate its weapons qualifications process, which currently requires manual input and relies heavily on the use of paper. Each year, soldiers in all service branches are required to complete individual weapons qualifications to ensure certification and competency.
“The manual process opens up opportunities for human error – including damage or loss to the physical sheets on which information is captured,” said Stephanie Birdsall, program manager for ASU's National Security Academic Accelerator.
The students needed to understand what data was being collected and apply their understanding of computer systems to determine how the collection process could be redesigned, she said.
The project required each team member to take on a different task in the problem-solving process. Some engaged in interviews, while others did research or programming — all of which combined to help come up with the final solution.
Antonas said that the new process will literally save years of time — time that can be used to focus on more important tasks, like combat training.
“I really know the pain and time associated with the current process and having seen the demo, it’s going to be a game changer in terms of accuracy and time saved,” he said.
Successful growth and solutions
The Hacking for Defence class, which originated on the Tempe campus, had 37 students last fall. By spring, the course was so successful that another time slot was added. The class will be offered again in the fall under the name Design Thinking for National Security.
Angela Aspito, a Hacking for Defence instructor, said that the course targets aspiring software engineers or security analysts, but is open to students in all disciplines. The students benefit from participating in interdisciplinary excercises to solving problems.
"The opportunity to dive into complex problems like solving national security challenges is extremely unique and gives students opportunities to apply what they learned at ASU in meaningful ways,” said Aspito, who is also a senior director at ASU Knowledge Enterprise.
“No other ASU courses offer the opportunity to work on a project from start to finish while directly engaging with external sponsors and potential customers,” Aspito said.
Aspito was not surprised by the success of her students.
“I’ve worked in the defense industry, and the enthusiasm for problem solving that ASU students bring us is more profound than anything I ever had with a team in the outside world,” she said.
Todd Sandrin, dean of the New College, said that real-world challenges like those presented in the class are exactly the kind of experiential learning opportunities exemplified by the interdisciplinary approach of the college.
“Our students are combining all they’ve learned and collaborating in small teams to create breakthrough effective solutions that are nimble, inexpensive and ready to implement,” Sandrin said. “This experience is highly valued by employers and will serve our students well throughout their careers.”
Vernon Morris, who helped bring the class to the West campus, echoed the practical applications of skills developed in the class and talked about the significance of students being recognized by the DOD.
“It is affirming,” said Morris, a Foundation Professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences and associate dean of knowledge enterprise and strategic outcomes at the New College.
“We strive to prepare workforce-ready scholars and foster critical problem-solving in our students every day,” Morris said. “But it is especially nice when external communities and stakeholders express their appreciation or recognitions for our students' efforts.”
More Science and technology
Advances in forensic science improve accuracy of ‘time of death’ estimates
Accurate “time of death” estimates are a mainstay of murder mysteries and forensic programs, but such calculations in the real world are often complex and imprecise. In a first-of-its-kind study,…
Unpacking a plastic paradox
Demand for plastics exists in a constant paradox: thin yet strong, cheap yet sophisticated, durable yet degradable. The various traits of plastics are determined by the polymer used to make the…
New chief operations officer to help ramp up SWAP Hub advancements
Last September, the Southwest Advanced Prototyping Hub — a collaboration of more than 130 industry partners led by Arizona State University — received nearly $40 million as part of the CHIPS and…