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Academy plays central role in developing tomorrow’s STEM leaders

An Air Force Academy cadet works on an engineering project. The Academy has a large number of research relationships with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and industry leaders that exposes cadets to real-world technical problems.

A U.S. Air Force Academy cadet works on an engineering project. The Academy has a large number of research relationships with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and industry leaders that exposes cadets to real-world technical problems. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AFNS) --

A recent article in Forbes noted the highest percentage of people in leadership positions with science, technology, engineering and math degrees and control huge organization aren’t CEOs, which might be who the reader might expect -- it’s four-star generals in the military.

Devin Cate, the director of the Air Force’s Test and Evaluation directorate, said that trend is likely to continue as leaders at all levels of the military prepare for a complex 21st century battlespace.

“We need to create a community of young engineers and scientists focused on cybersecurity, energy delivery and electronic communications,” Cate said. “Airmen will have to be comfortable operating advanced weapon systems or working in a command and control center, and they will need that strong technical background.”

Cate graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1983, where he majored in physics. He completed his Master of Science degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the University of Washington, and went on to serve in the test community after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School.

He said his STEM background opened doors throughout his 26-year career in the Air Force but more than that – it helped him develop a problem-solving mindset that served him in leadership roles.

“Coming from a technical background changes the way you think,” he said. “And it helps you not only on those technical issues but in management, policy and other leadership arenas.”

Per the article, many of the senior ranking military officers with STEM degrees graduated from one of the service academies, highlighting the role these institutions play in producing innovative leaders.

Cadets at the Air Force Academy today are immersed in hands-on STEM programs while also exposed to a broad education in the humanities and non-technical disciplines. All cadets take at least two-thirds of their coursework in a cross-disciplinary core and almost half of all their courses are in STEM fields.

“I like to think that our STEM programs are amplified by a great core curriculum that weaves together the structured thinking you associate with science and engineering with the critical thinking and insights that happen as a result of studying arts and humanities,” said Brig. Gen. Andrew Armacost, dean of faculty. “The intersection of these disciplines is where we see creativity and innovation really peak.”

The Academy has a large number of research relationships with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and industry leaders that exposes cadets to real-world technical problems. In one recent example, cadets were challenged to consider how unmanned aerial vehicle swarms could be controlled autonomously to wage battle against other swarms.

“It was an exciting opportunity for the cadets to get involved not just in the design and build phase of the problem, but also in how to manage such a project,” he said. “It allowed them to bring all the pieces together to exercise some extraordinary critical thinking skills.”

As the Academy looks to attract future STEM talent to the Academy and service in the Air Force, it has recently piloted a new recruiting program similar in many ways to how it recruits for intercollegiate athletes.

“There will be a call for people who are at the cutting edge of emerging fields and I believe the Academy, even though we are only an undergraduate institution, can play an important role in catalyzing interest levels in our graduates so they go on to graduate school and continue advanced studies in these fields,” Armacost said.

The Academy is currently developing a potential major and minor program in data science. The courses would better prepare its graduates to leverage vast amounts of data into actionable intelligence on modern battlefields.

“The Air Force Academy is constantly innovating and reinventing itself to meet the defense needs of the United States,” he said. “Our emerging programs in data science, in conjunction with our existing STEM focus, supports the National Defense Strategy and ensures that tomorrow’s officers have the education needed to defend our country.”

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