Military Embedded Systems

DoD works with universities to maintain interest, workforce in engineering


March 20, 2023

Lisa Daigle

Assistant Managing Editor

Military Embedded Systems

DoD works with universities to maintain interest, workforce in engineering
Howard University selected to lead 15th University Affiliated Research Center. (Howard University photo/Dr. Desta Hagos)

Walk around any defense-industry trade show floor in the last several years, or talk to defense-industry company officials, and one of the most pressing topics is the “gray-hair” issue. Even though new crops of engineers certainly enter the profession every year, statistics do bear out the anecdotal evidence of the aging of the defense-industry workforce. The National Science Foundation (NSF) found in 2021 that nearly 30% of all engineering and science degree holders in the labor force were 50 or over and expected to retire in the following 15 years.

David Honey, the DoD’s deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, spoke at the February 2023 National Engineers Week commemoration at the Pentagon and outlined some of the DoD’s initiatives aimed at students and young engineers.

In Honey’s keynote speech, he noted that the U.S. DoD is one of the world’s largest engineering organizations, employing more than 100,000 engineers. “Here, engineers share a unique mission to advance cutting-edge engineering technology, systems and practices, and specializations that range from cyber and space to hypersonics and quantum science and more,” according to the DoD’s account of the event.

Student engineers who are interested in working in defense can avail themselves of a variety of opportunities, Honey said, including the so-called SMART Scholarship, which is the DoD’s Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation [SMART] Scholarship. This initiative offers scholarships for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students who are currently pursuing a degree in one of 21 key STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines.

The recipients of the SMART scholarships are chosen, matched with a DoD laboratory that is relevant to their field of study, and awarded a full-tuition scholarship. Summer internships at those laboratories then turn into post-graduation jobs, with the students able to work at that same installation for a period of time that matches their scholarship.

Another DoD opportunity for those studying engineering is the Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship (VBFF). This highly competitive award – named in honor of Dr. Vannevar Bush, who directed the Office of Scientific Research and Development after World War II – is awarded yearly, aimed at advancing university-based fundamental research.

VBFF program director Dr. Jean-Luc Cambier has called the fellowship the defense department’s most prestigious research grant award: “It is oriented towards bold and ambitious ‘blue sky’ research that will lead to extraordinary outcomes that may revolutionize entire disciplines, create entirely new fields, or disrupt accepted theories and perspectives.”

In Honey’s National Engineers Week speech, he described the VBFF as supporting “new, out-of-the-box ideas where researcher creativity intersects with the unknown.” DoD materials reveal that each Fellow receives as much as $3 million over the five-year fellowship term to pursue cutting-edge fundamental research projects. The 2022 class of VBFF recipients – now working at their universities and with DoD laboratories and leadership – includes engineers and scientists from Stanford University, Cal Tech, University of Michigan, and Brown University.

Another way to get involved as an engineer or as a student pursuing a degree in a STEM program is through one of the DoD’s University Affiliated Research Centers (UARCs), which operate as DoD-supported nonprofit research organization affiliated with a university with a specific area of expertise that supports the long-term needs of the department.

In January 2023, the DoD announced the creation of its 15th UARC, which will be centered at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Howard is the first historically Black college or university (known as an HBCU) to lead a UARC. Howard’s UARC will focus on tactical autonomy, which the U.S. Air Force defines as “autonomous systems acting with delegated and bounded authority of humans in support of tactical, short-term actions associated with a longer-term strategic vision.”

Since being named in January 2023, Howard University has been working with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) to choose research topics, on which Howard will take the lead with a consortium of HBCUs, including Jackson State Univer­sity (Mississippi), Tuskegee University (Alabama), Hampton University (Virginia), Bowie State University (Maryland), Norfolk State University (Virginia), Delaware State University, Florida Memorial University, and Tougaloo College (Mississippi).

In the AFRL announcement regarding the Howard University UARC, Seana McNeal, deputy UARC program manager, emphasized the importance of STEM education and outreach as a major component of the Howard University center. Such outreach will include students in primary and high schools, plus trade, vocational, and college courses. The STEM education facet is important, McNeal asserted, in order to expand the workforce in tactical autonomy. “In order for us to remain leaders in defense, we need to have the best and the brightest, whether they’re working directly for the government or within our industrial base.”

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