WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – With support from the Air Force Research Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force Academy expanded its summer research program for undergraduate cadets and is now providing virtual research opportunities to the largest group ever in the school’s history.
“Thanks to AFRL, many more of our future USAF and USSF leaders will be exposed to research during their undergraduate studies,” said USAFA Associate Dean of Research Col. Chris McClernon.
Seventy-four scientists and engineers from AFRL are currently advising 165 cadets, working with them remotely to complete various research projects. In one such effort, students are supporting an experimental flight test program.
“We are grateful that AFRL provided incredibly meaningful opportunities for so many cadets,” said Maj. Jeremiah Betz, an assistant professor and the director of the USAFA Cadet Summer Research Program (CSRP).
During this three to seven-week internship program, senior cadets usually work in labs and universities across the country. However, the Department of Defense’s stop-movement order halted travel, and two-thirds of the original sponsoring organizations declined to participate due to COVID-19. Given these challenges, faculty and staff reached out to the Academy’s network of industry, academic, government and military sponsors for help in developing alternate assignments.
Upon learning of the request, AFRL’s Chief Technology Officer Dr. Tim Bunning compiled a list of 100 research topics by working with the various AFRL technology directorates and their chief scientists.
“Specifically, the Academy asked if we would be interested in enabling research internships on topics of interest to us where cadets and AFRL S&Es could jointly participate in a virtual, collaborative, multi-week research experience,” Bunning explained. He described AFRL’s response as “outstanding,” stating that the S&Es proposed quality ideas and eagerly volunteered to mentor the students.
Once Bunning provided AFRL’s list to Col. McClernon, individual USAFA department representatives quickly matched the topics with cadets to maximize participation.
“The impressive growth of [this program] amidst a global pandemic speaks to the innovative spirit and determination of the faculty and staff, the eagerness of cadets to participate in new experiences, and our external partners like AFRL that value cadet participation in their research,” said Col. McClernon.
USAFA Dean of Faculty Brig. Gen. Linell Letendre described this year’s program as “a remarkable opportunity for cadets to immerse themselves in current research confronting the Air and Space Forces today. I can’t thank the AFRL enough for their creativity and willingness to engage our cadets on a full range of technical challenges,” she said.
The Academy’s summer research program teaches problem-solving techniques through real world application of classroom principles. The experience helps students to develop key leadership skills and build lasting partnerships.
By working these research projects, the cadets gain experience in “formulating answers to complex technical questions that don’t come with canned answers from a textbook,” Bunning said.
AFRL has supported this research program in the past, although on a smaller scale. In 2019, AFRL employees mentored 26 USAFA cadets.