“It is knowledge that changes the world”: Where politics and science meet in W&M’s NSIN class

  • Real world experience:
    Students on the William & Mary NSIN: Hacking 4 Defense course are given the opportunity to address real-world challenges in the Department of Defense and intelligence communities. The students pictured were part of W&M’s NSIN team KOP (Keepers of Peace) during a visit to the State Department on November 5.
    photo submitted

from Ava Barnes ’23, Global Research Institute


February 1, 2022

William & Mary’s division of the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) is another example of how the university’s professors are finding new ways to bring real-world experiences into the classroom.

The NSIN: Hacking 4 Defense class, now in its second semester at W&M, gives students the opportunity to address real-world challenges in the Department of Defense and intelligence communities, such as designing new policies to address the attrition of female members of the Special Operations Forces of the contain the army.

“We need this especially for the political arena — bringing academia and business together to make a meaningful impact,” said retired Air Force Major General Mark Matthews, an associate professor.

Bridging the gap between science and policy, the Global Research Institute offers coursework that prepares students to work on cutting-edge issues in their future careers. Other courses GRI has developed in recent years have focused on blockchain and development, 5G networks, and participation in the State Department’s Diplomacy Labs. Despite its title, the Hacking 4 Defense course isn’t really about computers – “hacking” refers to problem solving, so students of any discipline who want to develop solutions and gain practical political experience are encouraged to apply.

Nitya Labh ’22, Fall 2021 teaching assistant, said the NSIN course is divided into a series of steps with the ultimate goal of creating human-centered recommendations for national security policy. First, students are divided into teams and given a real problem faced by the Department of Defense. You then have the task of researching and presenting solutions.

“Most of the semester is spent identifying beneficiaries,” Labh said. “Every week the students interview about 10 people on the topics. Each week they iterate through the process, determining who will benefit from the solution and developing potential solutions or “hypotheses” that will help those beneficiaries. Ten weeks, 10 interviews a week, 100 total – after that they finalize a recommended solution called Minimum Viable Product.”

As a final semester student of the NSIN course, Myles Marino went through this process in ’23 as he attempted to improve technology acquisition for the military. Myles said the course fostered an entrepreneurial spirit in himself and his teammates.

“If you want to make a tangible impact in an almost completely autonomous way and use your creativity outside of the classroom, then this is one of the best opportunities you have to do it,” he said.

Students receive expert guidance from Matthews, a retired two-star general in the US Air Force with 34 years of experience. In his early career, General Matthews flew F-15 fighter jets based out of Alaska to intercept Russian bombers. He then moved to the Pentagon, where he was part of the planning team tasked with developing a counteroffensive to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in the 1990s. His experience ranges from presidential briefings to deterrence operations against North Korea to supporting NATO against Russian nuclear aggression.

“One of the reasons I’m teaching this course at William & Mary is so the Department of Defense can benefit from the students’ very brilliant innovative ideas,” said Matthews. “This is being replicated at 50 universities across the United States. The Department of Defense recognizes that much innovation comes from people looking at problems with new eyes and from new perspectives to address very complex national security problems in the United States.”

Matthews was originally approached by the university to introduce a new chapter of NSIN: Hacking 4 Defense at the suggestion of government lecturer Dennis Alcides Velazco Smith, who also aims to help students make real-world contributions to pressing challenges. As co-director of the GRI Project on International Peace and Security (PIPS), Smith guides students in developing solutions to emerging international security threats.

“Tackling real-world problems inspires learning, empowers students and instills an ethic of service, with the added benefit of helping to bridge the academic and national security communities,” Smith said. “Supporting the establishment of the National Security Innovation Network’s Hacking 4 Defense program at William & Mary was a natural fit for PIPS. Hacking 4 Defense is a unique and excellent training. To have someone with Mark Matthews’ experience running the program is fantastic.”

“They have a policy expert in a teaching capacity,” Labh said. “Receiving instruction from a political figure has transformed the educational experience.”

Course offerings like NSIN empower students to solve complex challenges and work in teams, while contributing to William & Mary’s broader mission of engaging students in transformative research experiences, Labh said.

“This [course] is part of the Department of Defense’s innovation arm,” Labh said. “Hacking 4 Defense takes problems that exist across the Department of Defense and outsources them to college students to research and work on. They rely on science as a resource to solve the problems. William & Mary believes that students play a role in real-world research.”

The course encourages critical thinking skills through a flipped classroom approach, in which students present their findings and proposed policy solutions to the class before receiving constructive criticism from their peers.

“A flipped classroom approach means the professor doesn’t stand up and teach in front of you,” Labh said. “The information is presented in mini-lectures that the students in each class give about what they have learned and the interviews they have conducted that week, and the professors and students ask them questions. The students are the ones who learn and then teach others what they learn.”

For the spring semester, students will address the ongoing needs of the Department of Defense – from helping Army Futures & Concepts teams procure protective technology so ground forces can hide in plain sight to examining how the Army is playing the critical role that can reconcile energy to enable powers worldwide, while recognizing it as a potential vulnerability.

While the name Hacking 4 Defense may appeal to the most tech-savvy students, any student of any major who has a passion for solving complex problems and gaining hands-on political experience is encouraged to apply to TribeCareers. Those interested in learning more are encouraged to navigate to the William & Mary, Hacking 4 Defense website.

“Science is strongest and most influential when it’s relevant to policy because it’s knowledge that changes the world,” Labh said. “Creating science-informed policy and empowering students as much as possible allows us to pioneer both.”


About Author

Comments are closed.