UML First School in New England to Offer Interdisciplinary ‘Hacking for Defense’ Course

Three Hacking for Defense students pose for a photo with a flying drone Image by Kevin Kelly
The student team of, from left, Brennan Fournier, Gloria Donkor and Richard DeBenedetto practice flying a drone as part of their Hacking for Defense project.

By Ed Brennen

There aren’t many courses in which an undergraduate student in mechanical engineering, a graduate student in entrepreneurship and a Ph.D. candidate in global studies get to spend the semester working together on a project for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

But then again, there aren’t many courses like Hacking for Defense (H4D), a DOD-sponsored program that pairs interdisciplinary student teams with defense and intelligence organizations to rapidly address emerging national security challenges, using entrepreneurial methods.

The curriculum, originally developed 10 years ago at Stanford University, is now taught at close to 50 schools across the country, including Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, Ohio State and the University of Chicago.

This spring, UMass Lowell became the first university in New England to offer H4D, with six students from engineering, business and global studies taking the pilot course led by Manning School of Business Assoc. Teaching Prof. Ashwin Mehta and adjunct Bill Yelle.

Business Dean Sandra Richtermeyer says it was an easy decision to bring the course to UML.

“Interdisciplinary education is at the core of what we believe in in the Manning School of Business, and we constantly strive for these types of opportunities,” she says.

Students were divided into two teams and assigned a unique problem to address by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), which facilitates the course. Students used the “Lean LaunchPad” methodology, which involves proposing a hypothesis for a business opportunity, defining the essential building blocks, quickly testing assumptions about the market and customer needs by getting out and talking to lots of people, adjusting the product or service based on the feedback, and then launching a “minimum viable product.”
Hacking for Defense students present their sensor patch on Zoom
Hacking for Defense team members present the vital sign sensor patch they developed to make patient care more efficient for nurses and EMTs.

The team of Richard DeBenedetto (a senior mechanical engineering major from Nahant, Massachusetts), Brennan Fournier (a master of science in entrepreneurship student from Sterling, Massachusetts) and Gloria Donkor (a Ph.D. student in global studies from Accra, Ghana) studied how artificial reality and virtual reality could be used as a training tool for first responders.

The students worked with Kevin Kelly, technical director of PEO Digital, the Air Force’s software development program at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts. They interviewed dozens of public safety personnel to help shape their proposed solution: simulation training for firefighters using virtual reality and drones.

“I learned that it's important to interview your potential client as much as possible so that you can base your engineering solution around what will solve their current problem,” says DeBenedetto, who took the course because he’s interested in working for the DOD. “This just seemed like a great opportunity to do exactly that.”

Donkor, who enrolled in the class to learn how entrepreneurship can be used to solve social issues, agrees that getting input up front from potential users of the training tool was her biggest takeaway.

“Being in class might cause you to think you know the best solution to a problem, but it’s actually very beneficial to hear from people on the ground,” she says. “Our solution would not have been possible without this.”

The second team included Jonathan Aguilar (a senior mechanical engineering major from Lawrence, Massachusetts), Lani Faith Gacula (an M.S. in entrepreneurship student from Tagum City, Philippines), and Wynn Wiggins (an M.S. in entrepreneurship student from Burlington, Massachusetts).

Working with Matt Marighni, NSIN’s northeast regional director, and Claudia Quigley, regional lead at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, the students developed a vital sign sensor patch — a product that would use advanced textiles to help nurses and EMTs continuously measure a patient’s vital signs, thereby making patient care more efficient and effective.
A screenshot of the final H4D presentations on Zoom
Teams made their final presentations on Zoom, with project sponsors, H4D staff members and faculty from the Manning School of Business attending.

“Taking this course was an opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship while still being an engineer at heart. It was the perfect combination,” says Aguilar, adding that “it was also a way to give back to my community for a better future.”

Like all the M.S. in entrepreneurship students, Wiggins took the course to fulfill the program’s capstone requirement.

“I learned how to take a small idea — our skin-sensing technology — and turn it into something real,” he says.

The course uses the flipped classroom model, with students collecting and analyzing data and making presentations each week — and faculty serving as mentors and guides. The students made their final presentations on Zoom in late April.
“There were no lectures and no exams,” says Mehta, who intends to continue the course in the fall and eventually extend it to include other UML-developed commercial technology initiatives. “Ultimately, the plan is to make this course a model for other similar experiential courses.”

Gacula, who will begin pursuing her Ph.D. in business administration (entrepreneurship concentration) in the Manning School this fall, says the course gave her valuable insights into how to develop solutions.

“I would definitely recommend it to students who are interested in creative thinking and who wish to learn how to effectively design solutions to real-world problems,” she says.