Published: May 10, 2019 By
U.S. Army Rangers parachute from a plane

More than 50 students from across the CU Boulder campus, including a number of military veterans, put on their professional best this week to talk about an important issue: the new reality of national security.

The students had participated in a semester-long course, offered through the Technology, Cybersecurity and Policy (TCP) program, called Designing for Defense

And now it was time to pitch their ideas for how the U.S. Armed Forces could approach a range of emerging challenges—from the proliferation of commercial satellites in Earth orbit to the spread of internet of things devices, such as Fitbits.

“Tonight is a celebration of some great students and what I believe is some phenomenal work,” said Lloyd Thrall, one of two instructors for the course, at the start of the Shark Tank-like event on May 7 at Wolf Law. 

Students, for example, shared their ideas for how the Navy could resupply ships using autonomous drones and how secured sites might detect illegal attempts to access their networks. 

The budding engineers, business leaders and more had a receptive audience at the evening event: Guests included top leaders in the tech industry and several current and former military generals.

Students meet with leaders at the PentagonSAPANA members at PentagonMembers of the AJAX team

Top: Student members of team LOKI, which designed a strategy for resupplying Navy ships using drones and other tools talk with Lt. Gen. Andrew Poppas (far left, seated), director of opeerations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a visit to the Pentagon. LOKI won the award for "Best Policy Pitch" at an evening event on May 7. Middle: Several of thee SAPANA team members pose for a photo at the Pentagon. Bottom: The AJAX group dons matching t-shirts at the evening event. (Credits: TCP program; Timothy Passmore; Cory Cranford)

The class, now in its second year at CU Boulder, is sponsored by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN)—an organization launched by the U.S. Department of Defense that seeks to spur military innovation. Thrall said the U.S. armed forces are hungry for fresh ideas that can help them keep up with an increasingly connected world.

“The military and civilian worlds are increasing converging,” said Thrall, an associate director of TCP. “No longer can you draw a cleft between the world of washing machines and the world of submarines.”

‘Awkward is good’

He should know. Thrall is a CU Boulder alum and a former Army ranger who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Force Readiness under President Obama.

Designing for Defense, which Thrall taught alongside CU Boulder's Andy Meyer and Rebecca Komarek, embraces one of his personal mottos: “Awkward is good.”

In Designing for Defense, “we tell students that awkwardness is a feature, not a bug,” Thrall said. “We’re going to teach you how to lead under uncertainty.”

That fits with the experience of the student team called Strategies for Aerospace Policy and Norm Adoption (SAPANA). 

At the start of the semester, this seven-member group received an unusual charge from the Office of the Secretary of Defense: to think up new ways to protect the rapidly expanding armada of privately-owned satellites and even crewed vehicles in outer space. 

It was a big lift for a small student team without the experience or resources of the Beltway think tanks that usually address such issues.

“We had to get acquainted with this world very quickly,” said team member Timothy Passmore, a British-born Ph.D. student in political science at CU Boulder. “What are the big problems right now?”

To get up to speed, the SAPANA students interviewed more than 60 experts on space policy. They traveled to the Pentagon in March and, like the other eight student teams, worked with professional mentors from Colorado. 

That hard work paid off. On May 7, the students pitched the crowd on how they thought the U.S. might go about protecting its space assets. 

The group recommended that the U.S. launch a Civil Reserve Space Fleet—essentially a set of agreements that would allow the government to temporarily use commercial space assets during times of crisis.

Designing for Defense “treats you like a grown person instead of just a student,” said SAPANA group member Kim Devore, a master’s student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The instructors and mentors “really valued what you could bring.”

Final products

The professional mentors also got a kick out of seeing the students come up with some surprisingly advanced solutions to complex problems. 

“To see them in the course of 12 weeks pull together an understanding of an issue and be able to pitch their ideas—I’m always amazed,” said Paul Hamilton, a Colorado-based entrepreneur who worked for decades in the energy industry.

This year, Hamilton mentored a student team called AJAX. That group focused on a particular scenario: Say a unit of special operations forces drop into a dangerous territory overseas. Soon, they realize that some of their equipment isn’t working.

“Their GPS is being jammed, and they don’t know where they are. They don’t know what’s going on,” said Cory Cranford, the CEO of AJAX and a master’s student in TCP.

The team’s sponsor, a non-profit group called SOFWERX, had asked AJAX to develop a device that could give special operators an early warning if their GPS was being jammed.

Cranford and his fellow students took a simple approach to that tricky challenge: They designed an app that runs off a standard smart phone and uses the phone’s own sensors to pick up possible nefarious activity.

For their efforts, the AJAX team won an award for “Best Product Pitch” at the May 7 event.

While happy about the award, Cranford said he and his fellow students weren’t in it for the accolades—or for the potential to license their prototype to the military. 
“Most of us in the class have at least one family member who has served,” Cranford said. “So to be able to serve, as well, in an academic setting—that reward in and of itself is worth more than any of the money we could be getting at the end of this.”