Military Embedded Systems

Hacking for Defense program seeks to connect university minds with DoD, intel community


May 05, 2021

Lisa Daigle

Assistant Managing Editor

Military Embedded Systems

An often-heard comment in the defense community is that it’s getting harder to attract and retain talent for industry and research roles.

In fact, in the most recent report from the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), “Vital Signs 2020: The Health and Readiness of the Defense Industrial Base,” defense industry production inputs – which encompass skilled labor, intermediate goods and services, and raw materials used to manufacture or develop end products and services for consumption by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) – did not score well in 2020, earning the same grade of “D” as in 2018. Moreover, the NDIA’s report estimated the size of the defense-industry workforce in 2020 at approximately 1.1 million people, substantially below its mid-1980s peak of 3.2 million.

To combat the slumping numbers and perhaps attract some new talent from the nation’s student pool, the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), a DoD program office under the Defense Innovation Unit that seeks to create new communities of innovators to solve national security problems, partners with participating universities to offer a program called Hacking for Defense (H4D). H4D is a credit-bearing university program that enables talented student teams to collaborate with DoD and intelligence community members with the aim of developing novel solutions to the nation’s emerging threats.

The course was piloted at Stanford University in spring 2016 and continues to expand to other colleges and universities across the U.S., 47 of them at last count. One of the most recent entrants to H4D is Wichita State University (WSU – Wichita, Kansas), which has become the first higher-ed institution in the state to enable students to solve real-world national-defense challenges. The WSU program itself is courtesy of the university’s Masters of Innovation Design program and the FirePoint Innovations Center; FirePoint is a partnership between the U.S. Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command, Aviation and Missile Center (CCDC AvMC) and Wichita State University.

Doug Stucky of the WSU College of Innovation and Design, who is leading the initial H4D class at the university, says that the program offers a dual benefit to both the participants and the DoD. “First it provides real-world problems that students get to figure out on their own. This not only teaches problem solving, but it reinforces the problem-solving techniques they have been taught in previous classes. Additionally, it builds students’ soft skills through interviewing, communication, and gaining empathy for the user. These skills are among the most valued.

“In return,” Stucky continues, “the DoD gets access to a host of ideas, some new, some just different spins on existing ones, but the real benefit is not mitigating the graying [of the defense industry], but connecting experience with a new generation of ideas, ways of thinking, uses for technologies, attitudes towards work and more. It is also great for identifying upcoming talent. As the requirements of the military continue to evolve, this Hacking for Defense program allows them to manage the changes more effectively by focusing on connecting generations to merge organizational and tactical knowledge with new outside perspectives, skills, and technologies.”

“Hacking for Defense is really meant to be an incubator for domain/problem understanding, which leads to a minimum viable product (which can be as simple as a graphical representation) at the end of the course,” says James Santa, Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT’s) Director of Advancement Information Systems and adjunct teaching faculty within the Management Information Systems department at the RIT Saunders College of Business, and the Department of Computing Security within the Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences.

“All students, regardless of their background or selected majors, bring unique and important perspectives to the work they do in H4D, and it’s important that we encourage and celebrate those ideas,” Santa continues. “Anecdotally, I think a lot of students simply don’t know about the innovative work being done within the government agencies; this program opens eyes and minds in ways that more traditional classes aren’t set up to do.”

For the DoD and intelligence agencies, H4D enables them to tap into universities’ resources to gain a new perspective and accelerate mission-critical problem solving. In the process, DoD program sponsors also gain access to a pipeline of talented and much-needed STEM students to help address future workforce needs. Since its launch in 2016, H4D has resulted in 18 funded solutions and nine new business startups.

For universities, it keeps their programs grounded and focused on real-world problems; it also gives students experience and the chance to become effective in their chosen field, with an actual portfolio or body of work to back it up.

For more information on the Hacking for Defense program, visit the website at

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