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'Hacking' course to give Pitt students chance to aid Department of Defense

| Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, 5:15 p.m.

Hacking the Department of Defense will have a different meaning at the University of Pittsburgh.

In Hacking for Defense, a new graduate-level course offered this spring through the Swanson School of Engineering, Pitt students won't be trying to gain access into Defense servers to steal confidential information but will tackle challenges vexing the American military, said Daniel Cole, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Pitt and one of the professors teaching the course this spring.

“The name, it makes sense to Silicon Valley, but usually when we say it to Pittsburgh folks, we have to explain it,” said Cole, director of the Stephen R. Tritch Program in Nuclear Engineering. “This is about using lean start-up methods for solving legitimate DoD problems.”

Pitt will be one of several universities to offer the course in the spring. The university hopes to have six teams. Pitt is funding the course, but the Department of Defense could provide additional funding for teams to work on their projects after the course ends, Cole said.

Stanford University pioneered the course last spring. The university had eight teams, and three-fourths of them went on to receive additional military funding, Cole said.

One problem addressed by students at Stanford was how to monitor the health and psychological state of Navy Seals during underwater missions. That work uncovered a problem Seals face with communicating their location while under water and led to the development of a small GPS buoy that can be launched to the surface, said William Clark, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Pitt and the other professor teaching the course.

Students will work closely with teams at the Department of Defense on problems ranging from communications to drones to mission planning, said Adam Jay Harrison, director of the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Harrison said while the defense department is looking for products and technologies to solve its challenges, it also wants to build relationships with universities, professors and students.

“It may be that we can have an actionable, real product out of this,” Harrison said. “But that's not the first thing that we're trying to create. The first thing we're trying to create is a pool of people that are connected to, that engage with and collaborate with inside the Defense Department.”

Harrison, Cole and Clark said the program opens a new channel of communication between universities and the Defense Department. Funded research, such as a multimillion dollar DARPA grant, gives universities a narrow description of what to create.

“Tell us how to disrupt ourselves,” Harrison said. “We're not going to tell you what technology to build us a solution around. Go out and find us a technology.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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