By Phil Berube, Air University Public Affairs
/ Published July 12, 2019
Captain Jonathan Beabout, a former Squadron Officer School student research assistant, pitches his idea for leveraging chatbot technology across Air Education and Training Command educational platforms at the MGMWERX Pitch Night, May 21, 2019, Montgomery, Alabama. The captain, the chief of weapons and tactics at Lackland AFB, Texas, developed his idea while taking SOS’s Air University Advanced Research Elective. (Courtesy photo)
A former student research assistant taking the Air University Advanced Research Elective at Squadron Officer School was able to make a replacement (top) for a broken part (bottom) from a C-130 aircrew seat using additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. Getting a replacement part from the manufacturer would have cost a few hundred dollars and an untold amount of time; however, the student was able to print the part in about four hours for less than a couple of dollars. (U.S. Air Force photo by Phil Berube)
A new elective at Squadron Officer School is connecting some of the school’s innovative students with Air University’s vast body of research topics, extensive academic and military networks and expansive repository of information.
The Air University Advanced Research Elective was first introduced to students in 2018 as a vehicle to foster collaboration between SOS and the rest of the university.
“It was started with the intent to provide ambitious SOS students the opportunity to apply in-depth research and critical thinking skills during their time here,” said Maj. Heidi Jensen, who, as an AU Fellow, led the elective as a 36th Student Squadron flight commander and is now a student at Air Command and Staff College. “By giving back to AU’s academic community, students gain research experience, broaden their intellectual horizons and collaborate with new communities of interest.”
The elective is one of nearly 40 available to each class of more than 600 captains, international officers and civilian students during their 6.5 weeks at SOS.
After getting accepted into the elective, students can apply for one of its current research topics: Air University Integration Cell, Air Force Maker, Learning Sciences and Technology and ADWAR Gamification.
Students with backgrounds or interests in computer programming, wargaming or building operational plans might feel right at home with the Airpower Doctrine Wargaming, or ADWAR, Gamification topic.
Under this option, research assistants can help devise ways to improve the functionality and user friendliness of the wargame, said Stephanie Taunton, with the SOS Developmental Education Office.
The game is used to demonstrate to students how their individual career fields contribute to the joint force, describe the Air Force’s capabilities across multiple domains and explain how the service integrates its core missions into joint warfare.
Previous research assistants’ ideas included better button functionality that is more in line with typical gaming, hit markers for off-screen events, prioritized sounds, status bars of targets and other ideas that Taunton said she hopes to soon incorporate.
“The research assistants have created the ability to greatly improve ADWAR from a student perspective in rapid ways that would probably never have been thought of,” she said. “This will ensure that the experiential for the joint warfare pillar of SOS is more relevant and modernized with ease for student use for the future.”
As its name implies, part of what the Air University Integration Cell does is connect people with innovative ideas with those researching solutions for some of the Air Force’s most pressing issues.
“After some guidance from university library subject matter experts to sharpen their research skills and exploring topics with senior mentors, the research assistants are more than ready and capable of adding to the body of ongoing research at the university,” said Dr. Margaret Sankey, an Air University research coordinator who works with the Integration Cell to link research assistants with AU faculty and subject matter experts.
Since space and all things related to it are at the top of the Air Force’s list of priorities, it’s not surprising that the hot-button research topic in the Integration Cell topic has been on the subject of space.
And it’s relevant research.
Recently, a few research assistants presented their research on the “potential grey rhinos with developing an independent Space Force” to the deputy commander of Air Force Space Command, Maj. Gen. John Shaw, outlining what they’ve discovered to be the highly probable and high-impact, yet neglected, threats to establishing a Space Force.
“The SOS research assistants are cutting edge and highly motivated, and they are bringing their talents to bear on problems that the Air Force works in the real world,” said Sankey. “The general officers who have taken briefs from them have been impressed and pleased by the work, and in some cases have integrated what they saw into their thinking about the field.”
Although the majority of the attention has been on space, she said the topics list will expand, with the various Air University research task forces offering opportunities for the research assistants to “tag team” with Air War College- and Air Command and Staff College-based projects to further the connections between the schools and SOS. Their latest research topic is Generative Adversarial Networks, or “fake news.”
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, was pitched as a possible addition to the elective in early 2018 by a former SOS student, a captain in the Mississippi Air National Guard and a leading innovator in the industry. The Air Force Maker topic is now a permanent part of the elective and starting to get attention.
Word of the possibilities with this emerging capability at SOS has already reached the C-130 community, and is spreading quickly among other communities through the AFWERX network.
Using the 3D printer in the innovation lab at the Muir S. Fairchild Research and Information Center here, research assistants have developed prototype parts requested by C-130 aircrews. Once such part was manufactured for the Air Force Reserve’s 908th Airlift Wing at Maxwell. The part is used to support crew seat armrests on the unit’s C-130s. Getting a replacement part from the original manufacturer would cost roughly $300 and an untold amount of time to get; however, a former research assistant, Capt. Ian Watkins, a B-1 crewmember at Dyess AFB, Texas, was able to manufacture the prototype in about four hours for less than $2 in materials.
Another former student researcher, Capt. Casey Hawkins, brought his idea about a safer method to wash finished 3D-printed metal parts to a recent MGMWERX Pitch Night. His idea is to use oxide-based washes instead of acid-based washes to reduce the risk of harm to manufacturing workers and decrease the environmental impact. The captain, the petroleum lab chief at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, United Kingdom, finished as a runner-up for his idea.
“I am thrilled to see how quickly Air Force Maker is growing, driven by the tremendous work our student researchers are doing,” said Maj. Spenser Lee, 31st Student Squadron flight commander and who took over as lead for the elective from Jensen. “They have jumped in with both feet and in just a few short weeks, achieved proficiency and delivered useful solutions, face-to-face, directly to their customers.”
If the 3D printed parts are used operationally after meeting all safety and other Air Force requirements, their designs could find their way to the Air Force Maker platform for Air Force-wide sharing.
The Learning Sciences and Technology Studio at SOS serves as a creative space where research assistants can explore the intersection of learning and technology to better immerse and engage students, said Toni Hawkins-Scribner, studio director.
Hawkins-Scribner and Brad Aldridge, SOS’s senior educational technology analyst, provide guidance and mentorship for the research assistants, who are encouraged to collaborate with fellow classmates on how technology can enhance their learning experience at SOS and possibly at other military schools.
“We advise them on the literature review process and give them the opportunity to think about additional research areas around how people learn and about learning activities relative to leadership development and the needs of the Air Force from their particular perspectives, then they choose their own path of interest,” said Hawkins-Scribner.
As it turns out, their interests run the gamut from virtual, augmented and mixed reality platforms to apps, gaming and chatbots.
One research assistant who recently graduated from SOS pitched his research paper, entitled "Chatbot Application to Air Education and Training Command,” at a recent MGMWERX Pitch Night. In his paper, Capt. Jonathan Beabout, chief of weapons and tactics, Lackland AFB, Texas, argued that for the Air Force to continue to educate its members effectively, the command should leverage emerging technologies and use chatbots in as many applicable courses as possible.
While he wasn’t at SOS long enough to see the use of chatbots go from theory to application, Hawkins-Scribner said that future research assistants can pick up where the captain left off and pursue to application.
Pursuing solutions to some of the service’s vexing issues is what the elective is all about, said Col. Wayne Straw, SOS commandant, and it will help motivate students to take action on their ideas.
“I’m constantly amazed by the skills and talents resident in our students,” he said. “This elective empowers them to think outside the box. These students will change the Air Force for the better. All we need to do is provide some guidance and top cover and let them run.”