A Little Help From Civilians

May 30, 2019

Duke's new interdisciplinary Hacking for Defense class invites students and alumni to work on problems faced by the military

From Duke Magazine by Scott Huler

Outfitted in someone else’s camouflage protective vests and helmets, preparing to walk the perimeter fence of a concrete motor-pool containment of the Third Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, a half-dozen Duke students give considerable thought to what might happen on their circuit. They’re on a simulation exercise helping the Special Forces figure out how to best get medical care and information to units as they fight, far from support. Before heading out on their patrol, they discuss things like whether to break into two units that would go in opposite directions and pass each other in the middle, and they give a lot of thought to what they’ll do if they encounter enemy fire. Ultimately, they head out as a single group.

After they go, Sergeant-Major Dave Hubler, the battalion commander, explains why a bunch of Duke students—and alumni—are flinging themselves into complicated problems at the very edge of the farthest reach of military fighting forces. They’re part of “Hacking for Defense (H4D),” a demanding, interdisciplinary course that connects students from all over the university with military groups trying to solve problems. The students are expected to use entrepreneurial and start-up techniques to try to get to solutions quickly, delving into interviews with end-users before even the first class meeting.

If untrained Duke students wouldn’t be your first resource for solving persistent problems the military faces on the other side of the world, let Hubler explain. He’s been commanding units on the front lines for years, and though he knows what problems they face when members are hurt, he doesn’t think he’s going to find creative solutions. “My doing this for so long in some ways constrains my freedom of thought,” he says. “It’s fun having creative leaders” from places far outside the military who can look at problems in an utterly new way.

Then it’s time to hustle across the parking lot, because on their simulated patrol, the Duke students have encountered a problem. Not enemy fire, though—a “wounded” soldier in a vehicle, as planned by the trainers. The students heard him groaning, then spent some time in confusion. Finally, some of the first-aid training they’d received all morning kicked in, and they got to work. The group removed him from the vehicle, got him on a litter, and hustled him to the makeshift clinic where their instructors waited, though communications breakdowns caused further difficulties.

Afterward, the students and their trainers went through an AAR—an After-Action Report. The students noted that they had spent too much time worrying about enemy fire and had lost track of the first-aid they had been trained in all morning. Communication was a much bigger hurdle than they had expected, as was, actually, everything. “I was randomly chosen to be the leader” in the simulation, says Akanksha Ray, a junior major in public policy and economics. “And the moment I had the vest on, I was just at a loss. I had no idea what to do.”

That’s part of the plan, according to Tommy Sowers ’98, one of the teachers of the course. Though a significant part of H4D involves straightforward teaching about how to work with the military, many students are drawn to it because of its entrepreneurial, interdisciplinary, and hands-on approach. “We were thinking about our problem in very abstract terms,” Ray says, even after countless interviews and planning sessions—an essential lesson, according to Sowers.

“There are so many start-ups out there that don’t interface with their customers,” he says. Getting the students out of their comfort zone and into a situation where the problems the military deals with truly emerge wakes the students up. Research and interviews are nice, but “there are no facts at Duke”—that is, you can learn a lot at Duke, but to apply that learning you need to be in the field.

The other course instructor is Steve McClelland (E'95), executive in residence at the Pratt School of Engineering, who wanted to include teamwork in his teaching on entrepreneurship but found a paucity of materials. “That’s how I found [Sowers],” he says. “I had him come to my class.” Sports and the military were the hot sources of teamwork-teaching leads, and Sowers told him about H4D.

H4D was developed at Stanford by professors with military backgrounds as a way of encouraging fast-acting startups to help military enterprises solve their problems. It has been taught at schools like Brown and the University of California-Berkeley, but Sowers brought it to Duke for the first time this year. Sowers was a member of Army ROTC at Duke and taught at West Point, and he came across the course in his work at MD5, a program office of the Secretary of Defense. Once he began developing it for Duke, he turned to people he knew from his time in service and at West Point. “My former students were some of the first people I talked to: Have you got any problems?”

And eventually thirty-some students from all over Duke were broken into teams, trying to solve specific military problems. Duke has even added a new wrinkle to H4D: As both participants and advisers, alumni are included. “This is an experiment to have alumni on the team,” Sowers says. “We’re trying to figure out, how could we teach a thousand alumni?”

For help solving that problem, wonder where he could go?