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"Hacking for Defense" Comes to the University of Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH (October 18, 2016) … Starting next spring, students at the University of Pittsburgh will have the extraordinary opportunity to help the United States Department of Defense and Intelligence Community (DoD/IC) find new ways to solve problems that threaten national security and endanger military lives.

Hacking for Defense,” a new graduate course offered by the Swanson School of Engineering, will teach students how to apply lean business strategies popularized by Silicon Valley and the tech startup community to real problems faced by DoD/IC. Not to be confused with people who hack into vulnerable computer systems for nefarious purposes, this type of hacking focuses on solving or “hacking” difficult problems and quickly finding novel solutions that result in more efficient and/or affordable results.

“Defense problems are popping up faster than traditional methods can identify them, dissect them and solve them. Rapid innovation can bring a solution into action, even with limited resources. By using the lean startup methods employed by Silicon Valley, startups and small businesses, students can have a critical impact on the way the Department of Defense keeps our nation safe,” said William Clark, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Pitt.

At the beginning of the course, students will form four person teams and select a DoD/IC problem to solve. The first set of problems will come from Hacking for Defense Incorporated (H4Di), which works with the National Defense University to develop problems students can attempt to solve. These problems range from preventing DoD systems from cyber-attacks to finding novel capabilities for the rich data collected by the sensors on laptops, smartphones and tablets. 

The course—which is open to graduate students studying engineering, computer science, information science and business as well as students in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC)—takes advantage of a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. The students will focus on finding solutions to problems with limited resources and a very limited amount of time. 

Students will also have the potential to continue to develop their products and businesses after the class ends. They will design a business model and a Minimum Viable Product, or a streamlined product with just enough features to learn about customer feedback and demand. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the course is that some of the solutions will actually improve national security and save military lives.

“A key point in this class is that students have the opportunity to interact directly with the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community. The students are solving real DoD problems and will work and communicate directly with DoD/IC people during customer discovery to gain a better understanding of how to create products that solve real problems,” said Daniel Cole, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Pitt and Director of Stephen R. Tritch Nuclear Engineering Program.

Clark and Cole will be the course instructors at Pitt. The original course creators established H4Di as a non-profit organization to help spread the program to other schools. Twelve new schools, including the University of Pittsburgh, will adopt the course beginning next year following the model provided by Stanford University.

“The University of Pittsburgh is the ideal candidate for adopting this course because it represents a nexus of talent in business and industry, leadership, education and innovation. With companies like Google and Uber now operating in Pittsburgh, the entrepreneurial spirit is growing alongside well-established corporations. This means we have the agility to rapidly solve problems and the resources to see these solutions through to commercialization. Building on the Hacking for Defense model, initial plans are forming for Hacking courses in other domains of creativity and excellence at Pitt including Health, Sustainability and Energy,” added Cole.


Author: Author: Matt Cichowicz, Communications Writer

Contact: Paul Kovach