Online modeling and simulation degree program opening doors to opportunity
Robin Sexton and Chesley “Burt” Montague can boast of combined decades of on-the-job experience in a critical and highly specialized technical field. Their experience has been not only extensive but also especially intensive because while they describe what they do simply as “making games,” these games are serious ones.
The computer software experts are civilian employees of the U.S. Army, working at the Fires Battle Lab at Fort Sill – “the artillery capital of the world” – in Oklahoma. Montague is chief of the lab’s modeling and simulation division, Sexton is the lab’s senior modeler. Their team develops software programs that help provide military leaders data and analysis for advanced combat planning and strategy.
The games they make involve creating virtual battlefield scenarios of potential military conflicts, using those scenarios to determine effective ways to deploy field artillery, air defense, soldiers and their support systems in various situations.
To perform their duties thoroughly, Sexton and Montague explain, requires calculations involving a broad array of factors such as geography, weather and environmental conditions, along with human behavioral tendencies.
Their modeling and simulation work is also employed in training soldiers how to use battlefield equipment.
It’s a job in which “there is always something new and complex, and you can never stop learning,” Sexton says.
Career development path
In recent years, he and Montague have significantly expanded their expertise in the field through an online graduate program offered by Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. They each graduated last semester with a master’s of engineering degree in modeling and simulation.
Although they already had long records of accomplishment to their credit, Sexton says that earning the degrees has given them “some added weight of authority when we make proposals to our bosses to try new things.”
Their first step in pursuing the degrees was convincing their Army supervisors of the value of the ASU program. They became the first employees to earn master’s degrees through Career Program 36 (CP 36), the Department of the Army’s Civilian Analysis, Modeling and Simulation program for training, educating and developing civilians. Each Army civilian is placed into a career program for further training and career management.
Montague says CP36 is intended “to ensure Department of Army Civilian employees have the education to do their jobs better.”
Focus on theory and practice
He and Sexton say the ASU program fulfilled that educational mission in their cases. Learning from ASU computer science, industrial engineering and computer systems engineering faculty – including some with industry experience, as well as guest lecturers from industry – Sexton and Montague say they gained deeper perspectives on both the academic and research aspects of modeling and simulation, and on its real-world, problem-solving applications.
“We were able to apply new things in our jobs as we were learning them,” Sexton says.
“Our program gives you emphasis on both theory and practice, and that is its distinctive strong point,” says Hessam Sarjoughian, the developer and director of the program.
Sarjoughian is an associate professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He is co-director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Modeling and Simulation, which was co-founded by the University of Arizona professor Bernard Zeigler and Sarjoughian.
The program is designed to give students the technical training to gain advanced skills to create, formulate, develop and prove the effectiveness of solutions to more challenging modeling and simulation endeavors, Sarjoughian says.
At the same time, a focus on the theoretical underpinnings of the field produces graduates “who have attained a level of understanding that enables them to generate new ideas and innovations,” he says.
Online courses offer benefits
Sexton and Montague agree the program provided them a broader scope of knowledge than what they would have been exposed to solely in the workplace.
“It definitely put the finishing touches on my educational evolution,” Sexton says. “It prepared me to branch out if I want to,” and put him in a better position to find a job in a region of the country he wants to move to after retirement from civil service.
The program studies are also flexible enough to be tailored to specific needs of individuals or a specific company’s employees, Sarjoughian says. The linchpin of that flexibility is its online format.
Like many in the field, “Our work consumes 40 to 60 hours a week,” Montague says, making it impossible for most to pursue higher degrees as on-campus students. Doing schoolwork remotely and online allows for an adjustable schedule that not only makes it possible to return to school while continuing to work, but “has some benefits over a bricks-and-mortar school,” especially the ability to replay videos of lectures online, he says.
He and Sexton “still felt we were part of a class,” Montague says. “We had good communication with instructors,” ample advising from Sarjoughian and support from the engineering schools’ office of Global Outreach and Extended Education, which administers the program.
“I’m glad we made the choice to do this,” Sexton says. “It had been a long time since I was an undergraduate and I was a little nervous about my capability of going back to school.” The online format “really helped me make up for my deficiencies.”
Demand for expertise growing
He and Montague are among those who have earned their degrees in the online program that has enrolled students from throughout the country, as well as international students living in the United States and others living abroad.
The numbers of students in the program don’t match those of many other computer science and engineering degree programs because only the military and a handful of government agencies and research and development industries are intensely involved with advanced modeling and simulation, Sarjoughian explains.
That is expected to change rapidly. With more sophisticated and adaptable modeling and simulation technologies, industries from transportation and healthcare to computers and agriculture are beginning to get into the game.
The trend is reflected in the growing numbers of students who are now taking computer modeling and simulation courses at ASU. A decade ago the courses sometimes drew only several students. In the past few years, however, the courses have typically been attracting about 20 to 40 students. And the students now range beyond computer science majors to those pursuing degrees in a variety of engineering disciplines, sustainability and even archaeology.
Increasing interest in modeling and simulation is also coming from multinational businesses that need to carefully plan expansions of services, manufacturing operations and product distribution networks throughout the world.
“Any place where small strategic mistakes can have big consequences,” modeling and simulation expertise will be in more demand, Sarjoughian says. “It will be a critical field and it will need more people who are very good at it.”
Read more about ASU's online Master of Engineering in Modeling and Simulation degree program.