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University students problem-solve for US military in new course

March 13, 2017 (Photo Credit: Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
HATTIESBURG, Miss. — This summer, students at the University of Southern Mississippi could help U.S. military personnel who have encountered problems identifying and tracking individuals in crowded environments. Or they might come up with wearable sensors to help Navy divers work at any depth or temperature.

A new course offered at USM beginning this summer session will have students solving problems for the military and federal national security organizations.

Hacking for Defense isn't about breaking into military computers, it's about finding new solutions — or hacks — to the military's problems, said Chase Kasper, assistant vice president for research, technology transfer and corporate relations.

"This class was formed out of a need for problem solving for all branches of the military," he said. "It fits into some of the grants we're working on in the military sector about efficiency.

"The military is looking for solutions to the myriad of areas addressing increased efficiency. This course is a byproduct of that."

Students actually will be coming up with products and solutions the military can use on the battlefield, around the country and around the world.

"All the problems are sponsored by Department of Defense, Homeland Security and the Intelligence Community," said Dan DeMott, a member of the class teaching team. "They have a problem they have little time to solve, so they're asking for today's student to help solve these real-world problems."

The class combines the same accelerated problem-sourcing process developed on the battlefields of Afghanistan with a rapid customer-learning and product-development methodology first used at Stanford.

Ideally, the solutions the students find will have use in the civilian world as well. For instance, a pump that separates water from fuel could be useful for the armed forces and also for nonmilitary sectors.

Unlike many endeavors where a product is created, success will be measured not in terms of revenue and profit, but rather by mission achievement. DeMott said students must think like the end user.

"You have to understand how the war fighter thinks — everything is a mission to him," he said. "It's all about the actual person utilizing the technology. The investigator needs to live a day in the life of the mission worker."

The new course is administered through the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Students of all majors from business to engineering to computers to the arts are invited to attend.

"We are hoping to leverage the interdisciplinary background of the students at the university," Kasper said. "All are welcome. There are no disciplines that should not be considered.

"The problems that will be thrown at us will be of all shapes and sizes. We are looking to take in diverse teams."

Kasper said the Hacking for Defense course is hands-on learning that will force student teams to test their business model hypotheses outside the classroom.

"It will create a more well-rounded student who will be more capable of tackling the challenges of today's world," he said.
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