Taking cadet research to new heights

The Air Force Academy is a top-tier educational institution that demands academic excellence and excels in leading-edge research.

Cadets have opportunities to do unique graduate-level research within one of the Academy’s 21 research centers and institutes. They also can expand their horizons through the Cadet Summer Research Program, doing focused research within the Department of Defense, related government agencies and private research laboratories.

“The maturity and complexity of cadet research has changed since I did my research,” says Col. Gary Packard ’82, vice dean of faculty. “We are developing those very important critical thinking skills our officers need in order to fight 21st-century warfare.”

The Academy is the No. 1 funded undergraduate research institution in the country, according to a survey conducted by the National Science Foundation. In addition, private donors support individual programs or projects to provide cadets with even more access to research opportunities.

Here is a sampling of accomplishments and projects from the past 18 months that highlight the breadth of the Academy’s research endeavors.

Top guns

Seven faculty members received awards for exceptional research accomplishments during the 2017-18 academic year: Dr. Julie Tetley (Department of Research), Lt. Col. Jimmy Do ’00 (Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership), Lt. Col. Mark Grotelueschen ’91 (Department of History), Dr. Kerstin Haring (Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership), Lt. Col. Michael Anderson ’99 (Department of Engineering Mechanics), Dr. Alina Gearba-Sell (Department of Physics) and Dr. Randall Musselman (Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering).

Man + machine = modern warfare

Among the faculty researchers, Haring received a McDermott Award for Immediate Impact in Research for her work in human-machine teaming, which includes human interactions with robots and combat scenarios where autonomous F-16s are teamed with a manned F-35.

“My research in human-machine teaming directly benefits our military and is in line with the third offset strategy of the Department of Defense,” Haring says. “It identifies human-machine teaming and the advancement of human-machine collaboration as a crucial technological building block to offset growing disadvantages the U.S. Armed Forces face and enable our military strategic advantage.”

“The burden of studying war”

Lt. Col. Mark Grotelueschen, the Academy’s senior military historian and one of the nation’s leading experts on America’s role in world wars, received a McDermott Award for excellence in humanities for his extensive research commemorating the centennial of the First World War.

A sense of duty and calling bolsters Grotelueschen’s commitment to imparting his knowledge as a war historian to future Air Force officers.

“In the middle of the American Revolution, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that he had to study politics and war so that his children and grandchildren would have the liberty to study mathematics, philosophy and music; that the burden of studying war belongs to a select few in every generation,” he says. “Our society is counting on us to study war and to keep on studying it because we are entrusted with the safety and security of our fellow citizens.”

Touching space

The Academy’s Small Satellite Design Program, FalconSAT, gives cadets the unique opportunity to design, build and operate satellites involved in a variety of defense-related missions. Two satellites are scheduled to launch in October aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

FalconSAT-6 will collect data from experiments on satellite propulsion, contamination levels, low-power communications and solar arrays.

FalconSAT-7 is a CubeSat with a novel deployable telescope designed to look at the sun, developed by the Academy’s Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center (SPARC), housed in the Department of Physics.

“FalconSAT-7 uses a radically new diffractive optic that images the sun using a light-weight plastic membrane,” says Col. Rex Kiziah, professor and head of the Department of Physics.

Kiziah appreciates the interdisciplinary nature of the FalconSAT program that fosters collaboration between USAFA faculty and cadets, as well as personnel in related Air Force facilities.

“In addition to cadets and faculty working with the SPARC, faculty and students at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, also worked on the satellite,” Kiziah says. “Once in low-earth orbit, FalconSAT-7 will be operated by USAFA Department of Physics faculty and students, with assistance from AFIT and the Naval Postgraduate School, using a ground station in Hawaii.”

Bullet-stopping success

When a group of chemistry students were tasked with exploring ways to combine epoxy, Kevlar and carbon fibers into a material that could deflect bullets, now-2nd Lt. Hayley Weir had some ideas.

Working in league with Ryan Burke, associate professor of military and strategic studies and an ex-Marine, Weir created a bullet-stopping goo-like material that promises to not only revolutionize the body armor industry but also has multiple defense and private industry applications.

The pair’s research led to the creation of a patent-pending material that earned Weir the Air Force Research and Development Award.

“We just combined different things that already existed and turned it into something that ended up working,” Weir said. “I don't think it has actually set in how big this can get. I think this is going to take off, and it’s going to be really awesome."

Stealthy drones

Silent surveillance and the element of surprise are key ingredients to success in combat. C1C Jinan Andrews received a Thomas D. Moore Award for Outstanding Cadet Summer Research for research on silent, low-flying, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) powered without the use of electric motors.

“Producing electroaerodynamic flight would mean a new paradigm for UAV models,” Andrews says. “It could be very, very beneficial for the United States Air Force because it means that we could have low-level UAV flight where it is ultimately silent.”

Superior intelligence

C1C Molly Phillips conducted summer research at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C. Phillips uncovered a secret weapons development project that was being coordinated at a university in an “adversary nation,” providing important information to the intelligence community.

In recognition of her research, Phillips was honored as the overall winner of the Thomas D. Moore Award for Outstanding Cadet Summer Research.

Expanding academic excellence

Academy graduates and friends are supporting the success of cadet and faculty research through the United States Air Force Academy Endowment. Gifts can be designated to specific departments or projects, overall academics, or to unique endeavors such as establishing an endowed chair.

Endowment board director John Martinson ’70 established the Academic and Innovation Fund to support key academic programs. Dr. Julie Tetley received a Martinson Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award for her innovative work in the Department of Research.

Mark Howes ’75 has become a champion for the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, which includes the Warfighter Effectiveness Research Center. Howes not only supports cadet research personally but also networks with fellow graduates to share business and development experience with cadets.

“It’s a process through which academic departments establish relationships with graduates to enhance aspects of the existing curriculum with non-Academy examples from business, government or other military environments,” Howes says.

Lt. Col. Don Raines ’86 has established a special relationship with the Department of History. Last summer, he sponsored the Face of Battle staff ride. Six cadets — all history majors — were able to travel to Europe to explore the sites of historic conflicts, including the medieval battle of Agincourt, Waterloo, the Battle of Somme, the Battle of Britain, the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.

“Developing this sort of intellectual engagement with the past creates insights that cadets will carry with them for the rest of their lives,” says Dr. Bob Wettemann, associate professor of history.

On a corporate level, The Boeing Company has contributed significantly to FalconSAT, the Cadet Summer Research Program, the Senior Design Capstone Program, the Center for Character and Leadership Development, and other research initiatives.

Putting it all together, the Air Force Academy fosters a one-of-a-kind environment for advanced academic research that is providing exceptional training for Air Force officers and future leaders throughout the nation.


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