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

Now in its second semester at W&M, the NSIN: Hacking 4 Defense class gives students a chance to tackle real-world challenges in the Department of Defense and intelligence communities, such as restructuring the U.S.-U.N. peacekeeping role in a post-Afghanistan environment and designing new policies to stem the attrition of Army female Special Operations Forces members. 

“We need this especially for the policy arena — academia and business brought together to create a meaningful impact,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mark Matthews, an adjunct lecturer. 

As the Global Research Institute bridges the gap between scholarship and policy, it offers coursework that prepares students to work on cutting-edge issues in their future careers. Other courses GRI has developed in recent years have centered around blockchain and development, 5G networks and participation in the State Department’s Diplomacy Labs. Despite its title, the Hacking 4 Defense class is not actually about computers — “hacking” refers to problem-solving, so students from any major who want to develop solutions and gain hands-on policy experience are encouraged to apply. 

Fall 2021 Teaching Assistant Nitya Labh ’22 said the NSIN course is broken down into a series of steps, with the ultimate goal of producing human-centered national security policy recommendations. First, students are placed into teams and given a real issue facing the Department of Defense. They are then tasked with researching and presenting solutions. 

“The majority of the semester is spent on beneficiary discovery,” Labh said. “Every week, students interview around 10 people related to the issues. Every week, they iterate through the process and determine who the solution is going to benefit and develop potential solutions, or ‘hypotheses,’ that help these beneficiaries. Ten weeks, 10 interviews a week, 100 in total — once they have done that, they finalize a recommended solution referred to as a Minimum Viable Product.” 

As a student in the NSIN course last semester, Myles Marino ’23 underwent this process as he sought to improve technology acquisition for the military. Myles said the course encouraged a spirit of entrepreneurship among him and his teammates.  

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

Along the way, students receive expert guidance from Matthews, who is a retired, two-star general in the U.S. Air Force with 34 years of experience. In his early career, Gen. Matthews flew F-15 fighter jets based out of Alaska for the purposes of intercepting Russian bombers. He then transitioned to the Pentagon, where he was a part of the planning team tasked to develop a counter-offensive campaign to push Iraq out of Kuwait during the 1990s. His experience spans from presidential briefings to deterrence operations against North Korea, to supporting NATO against Russian nuclear aggression.  

“One of the reasons I teach this course at William & Mary is to avail the Department of Defense of the very bright innovative ideas the students are coming up with,” Matthews said. “This is replicated in 50 universities across the United States. The Department of Defense recognizes that a lot of innovation comes from people who look at problems with fresh eyes, from new perspectives to address very complex issues in national security in the United States.” 

Matthews was initially approached by the university to introduce a new chapter of NSIN: Hacking 4 Defense upon the suggestion of Lecturer of Government Dennis Alcides Velazco Smith, who also aims to help undergraduates make real-world contributions to pressing challenges. As co-director of GRI’s Project on International Peace and Security (PIPS), Smith mentors students as they cultivate 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 bridge the academic and national security communities,” Smith said. “Supporting the establishment of National Security Innovation Network’s Hacking 4 Defense program at William & Mary was a natural fit for PIPS. Hacking 4 Defense is unique and excellent training. Having someone with Mark Matthews’s experience run the program is fantastic.” 

“You have a policy expert in a teaching role,” Labh said. “Getting instruction from a policy person has transformed the educational experience.” 

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

“This [course] is part of the innovation branch of the Department of Defense,” Labh said. “Hacking 4 Defense takes problems that exist across the DoD and outsources them to college students to research and workshop. They lean on academia as a resource for solving the problems. William & Mary believes undergrads have a role in research in the real world.” 

The course builds 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 that the professor doesn’t stand up and teach in front of you,” Labh said. “The information is presented through mini lectures that the students give every class about what they’ve learned and the interviews they’ve done that week, and the professors and students ask them questions. The students are the ones learning and then teaching others what they are learning.” 

For the spring semester, students will respond to ongoing needs at the DoD — from assisting the Army Futures & Concepts teams in acquiring protection technologies so that ground forces can hide in plain sight, to examining how the Army can balance the crucial role of energy in enabling forces worldwide, while also acknowledging it as a potential vulnerability.  

While the name Hacking 4 Defense may appeal to the technologically-inclined students, any student from any major who has a passion for solving complex issues and gaining hands-on policy experience is encouraged to apply on TribeCareers. Persons interested in learning more are encouraged to navigate to the William & Mary, Hacking 4 Defense website.  

“Academia is most powerful and impactful when it is relevant to policy because it is knowledge that changes the world,” Labh said. “Creating policy that is informed by academia and empowering undergrads as much as possible allows us to pioneer in both senses.”