Defense Innovation Requires Focus on STEM Education

By Alan Pellegrini
Maintaining the talent pipeline is critical for the Defense Department and the defense industry. A STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — development office was created within the office of the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering. 

A number of programs within this office focus on student STEM initiatives — K-12 through post-graduate researchers. These student programs work to develop the nation’s STEM pipeline through partnerships with other government agencies, industry and academia.

A recent success story was the formation of an “adopt-a-school” program. Launched in February, the first beneficiary school was Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. The “adopt-a-school” program focuses on providing mentors and volunteers to the school to support enriched reading and hands-on experimentation. This program is part of the first step in boosting students’ self-confidence, stimulating ideas and fueling the desire to learn.

Successful initiatives such as the “adopt-a-school” program are important because they have a lasting impact on the workforce pipeline by contributing to the long-term delivery of talent when these students enter their careers. Without this talent, the strong workforce currently underpinning national security efforts would not be able to stay ahead of the curve and meet the demands of evolving global threats.

With challenging mission requirements surrounding defense operations, the responsibility to develop solutions to combat these threats is largely placed on the STEM workforce of both the department and its industrial base. Combating global threats often requires new technology, making the key to success innovation. So, how can student STEM programs support innovation now, not just in the future?

The answer is to empower students and their ideas by putting real-world challenges in front of them and not limiting creativity.

Using the idea of open-opportunity, the Thales Arduino Challenge was created as a STEM initiative for college students.

This program is unlike other initiatives because it does not establish general learning goals. Rather, the program supports innovative, student-led teams and their projects in a truly free-form way. It embraces creativity and the concepts of technology-transfer by only asking students to do one thing — develop an innovative or interesting capability which addresses key markets: aerospace, defense, security, space or transportation.

This was the first step in empowering both students and their ideas.

As part of the challenge, Thales supplied each team with an Arduino board — an open-source, do-it-yourself computer hardware and software solution only limited by students’ creativity — and this investment facilitated creativity. After empowering students with the right technology and the appropriately broad objective of creating potential real-world solutions to problems, students got to work bringing their ideas to life.

Using this open-ended framework and guidelines, the challenge forced students to think creatively and develop some very interesting projects.

Empowerment was not the end goal because many STEM programs already strengthen student development and grow the workforce pipeline. The measure of success was to create opportunities which fostered innovation with real benefits and potential business implications.

As the future of the U.S. economy and its security rest on innovative, high technology industries and the innovators within them, organizations should seek innovation in every opportunity.

Connecting students with Thales through this challenge created a network of ideas and enabled innovative results. In fact, all projects that made the finals address opportunities related to current defense or security challenges. These projects focused on improving battlefield awareness or city security. The results could not have been better because both of those markets are areas in which Thales has a role to play.

Each team’s drive for innovation created great ideas and their projects have the potential to influence our world. When it comes to innovation in student STEM programs, it is clear that students must be afforded uninhibited creativity.

Even in larger, more mature and more competitive environments, such as national security, innovation means breaking people out of their closed and internally focused research and development processes into the marketplace of ideas, connecting people to one another — from both inside and outside an organization — and working to support collective goals. Through a rethink of student STEM programs, Thales was able to spur innovation, and this process is something both private industry and the government should pay attention to, as neither ought to stand alone when it comes to fostering innovation.

By leveraging student STEM programs, it is possible to attract talent for the future by empowering students to create innovation now. As the government relies on innovation for its mission requirements, the same talent is needed for a strong industrial base. Cultivating these skills together through student STEM programs helps ensure national security and a strong economy.

Innovations enhance competition and competitiveness, but the process of innovating is not easy.

That is why government and industry must think creatively. Organizations must look beyond their own walls to support people and ideas that help secure our nation and allow high-technology industries to thrive. One way to do this is through STEM programs.

As both the private sector and government often struggle to attract talented workers that foster disruptive innovations, student STEM programs are a way to strengthen the workforce pipeline, empower people and actively nurture innovation driving benefits.

Today, innovators are especially important for more than just America’s economic future, they are imperative for national security and companies in the defense sector. In the face of evolving global threats, the Defense Department maintains its superiority through advanced technologies and continued research and development.

Alan Pellegrini is president and CEO of Thales USA, an aerospace, defense, security, space and transportation company.

Topics: Defense Department, Research and Development

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