Stanford grad students develop app to streamline Air Force training

Phil Stiefel
Phil Stiefel is a member of the Stanford team that won the Hacking4Defense competition.

An interdisciplinary team of Stanford graduate students is developing an app to improve training for U.S. military personnel.

The technology – originally created to help sports teams train athletes more quickly and efficiently – recently garnered the top prize at the U.S. Department of Defense-sponsored Hacking4Defense competition in San Francisco.

ANDREW POWELL, MBA/MA ’20, said his team’s approach addresses a persistent problem facing the U.S. armed forces, particularly the Air Force.

“Pilots often lacked accessible, effective tools for staying up-to-date on the mechanical and engineering details of their aircraft or for learning new emerging topics,” he said. “Things like an updated emergency procedure plan that evolves in light of what people learn from a mishap.”

During spring quarter, Powell and fellow grad students PHIL STIEFEL, JD/MBA ’21; SASHA SEYMORE, JD/MBA ’20; and SAMUEL LISBONNE, MS ’20, teamed up to solve the problem. They enrolled in MS&E 297: Hacking4Defense, a course in which students invent new technologies that tackle complex problems critical to the U.S. Department of Defense or the intelligence community.

Before coming to Stanford, Powell and Seymore developed a platform called Learn to Win to help football players and other athletes learn playbooks and game plans in an accelerated and more effective way. At Stanford, Navy reservists Seymore and Stiefel ruminated on the limitations they experienced during their military training. That’s when it hit them.

“There was a flash-of-inspiration kind of moment when we realized we could use this platform to improve the accessibility, adaptability and functionality of Department of Defense trainings,” Stiefel said.

They visited Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento and Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma to interview military commanders. They learned that Air Force training methods had gone unchanged for decades. Antiquated computer-based training programs weren’t compatible with the iOS or Windows and were accessible only off-base. The scores from computer-based trainings were recorded by hand and stored in three-ring binders. Aircraft technical manuals were often thousands of pages long. What’s more, these analog training methods cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year and generate little discernable return on investment.

The students modified Learn to Win to streamline the training process. They created an interface that’s functional and adaptable to each user, integrated audio and video, and made the app compatible with mobile phones and tablets. They also developed a process to track and measure analytics, such as who takes the trainings and how they perform. With this app, Air Force commanders could create new lessons in a matter of minutes and push relevant, engaging training materials to airmen’s mobile devices.

Powell, Stiefel, Seymore and Lisbonne submitted their idea to the Hacking4Defense national security innovation competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. They beat out more than 200 teams from around the country to make it to the final round, which took place in June. There, the students pitched the app to a panel of Silicon Valley venture capitalists before claiming the top prize of $30,000.

This summer, the students are continuing to develop the app.

Read more in The Roundabout.