Joint ASU-Army project helps bridge the gap between civilians, soldiers

By

Hannah Moulton Belec

Since the military became an all-volunteer force in 1973, there has been an increasing gap between civilian and military sectors, said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Freakley. But a joint research program between the U.S. Army and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society is helping Arizona State University students develop valuable skills while supplying the Army with critical research to help bridge the gap.

Less than 1% of the population serves in the armed forces, and the veteran population is less than 10%. Freakley, who is a special adviser to ASU President Michael Crow for leadership initiatives, said the program is an innovative way to increase civilian understanding of how the military functions.

“Many Americans know very little about our military, which is troubling,” he said. “For our students and faculty, this project increases our awareness and understanding of the Army and its function in defending our nation.”  

The ASU portion of the national program, called the e-intern TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) program, was launched as a pilot in fall 2018 and focuses on population-dense urban areas around the world, which impact U.S. relations and diplomatic goals. The program developed after TRADOC approached ASU Research Enterprise, the applied research lab of ASU, to tap into ASU’s wealth of expertise about megacities, dense urban environments and critical thinking. 

Each semester, groups of ASU students are assigned a city or region and conduct research as it relates to U.S. interests. The project engages ASU students in current, transdisiplinary and critical research into the Army’s requirements, shaping the doctrine that guides soldiers and Army leaders while inspiring a new generation to consider careers with national relevance.

In the spring 2019 semester, three groups of students focused on three major cities in Africa, analyzing the effect of terrain, population, infrastructure and information on U.S. security forces. African cities were selected for analysis since increasingly U.S. forces deploy there for humanitarian reasons, and there is a need to better understand the dynamic cultural, demographic, social and economic environment in advance of a deployment.

Nathan Hui, a biomedical engineering major who will be a senior this fall, participated in the program. He and his research partner analyzed the city of Algiers, Algeria, on the northern coast of Africa. 

At the end of the spring 2019 semester, Hui and other students presented their research to Army training command officials who visited ASU’s Tempe campus for the presentations. 

“The months leading up to the final report (are) mostly an enormous amount of internet research, using databases the Army provides and cross-linking them with the information I find online,” Hui said. 

Hui, who started the program in the fall 2018 semester, said he was nervous before delivering his first presentation but that he has “really enjoyed working with them for the past year, so presenting it this time was actually kind of fun.” 

Patricia DeGennaro, a subject matter expert from the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, was one of the Army officials to receive the students’ presentation. She said that the students’ research helps the Army understand issues in different environments.

TRADOC’s role is to train and develop today’s Army while conceptualizing the doctrine for tomorrow’s Army. Through the e-intern project, ASU students have the opportunity to directly assist the Army with imagining the future operational environment and how the Army might meet ever-changing security, environmental, social and economic challenges.

DeGennaro said that the program provides an opportunity for students to understand different aspects of the U.S. Army and government but that it also helps the Army understand students’ perspectives. 

Claudia ElDib, director of university engagement at ASU Research Enterprise and a faculty adviser for the e-intern effort, said that the program helps universities and students in various fields, often not related to defense, view government entities as “partners in the same quest.” 

The Army believes that student research is important because “analysis developed by a demographic similar in age to those soldiers deploying will resonate more than if the analysis had been developed by career analysts,” ElDib said. 

Hui, who is currently preparing to work in the medical device industry and is considering going to law school, said that he joined the program to gain exposure to different kinds of research and to take part in an opportunity to learn more about the world. 

“I’ve learned how to be more efficient at conducting research where the amount of data is so massive and overwhelming,” Hui said. “Looking at the amount of information available on these cities and learning how to compile and analyze it in a way that answers the specific needs of the Army is great training in how to conduct research.” 

The chance to develop these research skills are an invaluable professional opportunity for undergraduate students at ASU.

“This project focuses on the complex interdisciplinary nature of research about Dense Urban Areas," said project director Ira Bennett, a faculty member in the school. "The skills necessary for this type of research are what we focus on in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society’s Undergraduate Research Program. We are excited to be recruiting a new cohort of researchers for this fall.” (Applications are due Aug. 11.) 

Freakley, who served more than 36 years in active duty in the Army, including worldwide recruiting efforts, said he’s impressed with the students’ work and that ASU is paving the way for future military-university collaborations. 

“Since we are engaged and leading, other institutions can learn from our initial efforts and approach,” he said.

Freakley emphasized that ASU’s collaboration with the U.S. military is crucial to building problem-solving networks for the Army while enabling student success.

“The key for the Army is to be prepared, to be ready to counter the threats to the American way of life,” he said.

“Our students will help TRADOC develop new, relevant doctrine so that the Army is as ready as possible as new threats emerge. Clearly, if the Army is trained and ready, that alone will save lives on the battlefield.”

Written by Bryan Pietch, Sun Devil Storyteller, and Hannah Moulton Belec, EOSS Marketing.