West Point's chief scientist explains significance of research at academy
November 5, 2010
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Nov. 5, 2010) -- Preparing the average textbook from conception to distribution is a three-year process. Oftentimes, when a student studies one technology from the book, new technology has already replaced it. That's a problem, Lt. Col. John Graham, West Point's chief scientist and associate dean for research, said.
"We at the academy cannot afford to teach our courses out of textbooks alone," Graham said. "By the time the information of a particular discipline makes it into a text book, many times, we've already discovered the next thing. Many of our instructors supplement the texts with additional readings that are cutting edge. Most of our upper-level courses, our senior courses, now involve developing new information, developing new insights."
Graham, who was recently appointed as the dean's lead on research information, outreach and oversight, is keenly focused on increasing the relevant research West Point cadets and faculty engage in. By relevant, he means those projects that yield positive results for the academy, the Army and the nation.
While West Point is known primarily as the Army's academy for developing leaders of character, research plays a critical role in how these leaders are developed.
West Point's model for research, Graham said, is a reflection of the Army's operational needs in theater. Senior leaders are looking for critical thinkers and creative problem solvers, and that's what West Point graduates deliver.
"We've learned that there is no scripted answer to how you 'take the hill.' Most, if not all, of our senior leaders say the same thing: 'I need an officer with an experimental mind set.'"
Of those two components of cadet development, Graham said the creative problem-solving is particularly interesting for faculty to explore with cadets.
"What we're saying is, 'I'm going to teach cadets a theory here, but I'm going to expect them to apply it or expand on that theory with their own insights.' Think about the confidence that builds, the trust in their ability to search the world and grasp what's going on in the environment. That will make them great officers in an uncertain and volatile environment."
Cadet research is a constant, cumulative activity at West Point. The results are most visible at the annual Projects Day, when cadet teams present their work to the public, a demographic heavy with scientists, researchers and the project managers who've presented a particular issue for the cadets to solve.
There have been numerous successes, some more prominently featured than others; the Statue of Liberty evacuation device, the bionic foot and the Black Knight I space satellite, to name the more recent highlights. Others are more theoretical in nature, some whose applications are not yet fully realized, but acknowledged by leaders in that field.
"Other schools would never consider using an undergrad as a partner in research," Graham said. "They would never develop an undergrad to even conduct research. Undergrads are designed to receive information, not develop information. But we expect our students to develop information. It's core to what they do when they are lieutenants, gather and develop information. So new faculty arrive and pretty quickly discover they can leverage and work with these really bright students and execute fantastic research."
Research, Graham said, encompasses everything within a cadet's 47-month experience that has to do with knowledge and discovery. Research is not limited to the confines of a laboratory because the West Point experience takes cadets out of classroom and into a foreign country, a Department of Defense organization, or to an Army installation where different research is conducted.
West Point experienced a dramatic sea change with the introduction of civilian faculty in 1992. Prior to this, rotating military faculty, fresh from graduate school, would replenish the academy with new information.
"When the civilian faculty got here, it changed our model because they asked, 'why aren't we doing research'" Graham said. "'Why aren't we participating in knowledge discovery''"
At first glance, West Point is not recognized as a research institution, but Graham said it is unique in its own right.
"Every person [who's] engaged in research is tied to the classroom in some way," Graham said. "And through that, we've been as or more successful than some research universities. Also, our researchers openly share and collaborate at a rate few can replicate. That creates solutions that draw from multiple disciplines and are far 'out of the box.'"
New faculty who expect little in the ways of research here are often surprised, but Graham wants this to become the norm and not the exception. Some professors, like Jean Blair, vice dean for education, seek out a West Point appointment because they fully understand the research potential.
"The reason I came here to teach was because West Point's a place that appreciates both teaching and research, and those are important to me," Blair told the Pointer View in a recent interview.
Blair is currently conducting research on network structure and algorithms through the Network Science Center, and said faculty research keeps the mind agile. This translates to better instruction in the classroom.
The question Graham hears most often is why certain research goes wholly unnoticed. Short of screaming it from the top of Battle Monument, is there really a way to garner enough attention to a breakthrough in molecular biology' Part of the problem in even doing that: scientists speak in complex terminology requiring unappreciated translation for others to understand its significance. But is the problem even there, Graham questions.
"It is not the case that the project went unnoticed," Graham said. "That project made it to the top names of their field, and it was celebrated by faculty members and their department, and the professor thought that was good enough."
Or so it was at one time. Now, Graham wants to make sure more is done to acknowledge the successes of faculty and cadet research for a mainstream audience. Doing so can garner more requests for quality research which meets the academy's goal of making the research relevant.
"It is so important to the Army and to the nation that people understand that not only do we produce these incredible young men and women who are going out and doing wonderful things, but those officers also did some amazing things in research as cadets," Graham said.
West Point also participates heavily in STEM programs as the nation engages in global competition to develop the future engineers, mathematicians, scientists and innovators of tomorrow. Nearly $1.2 million in STEM grants have brought hundreds of students and educators to West Point for various conferences and classes.
Recently, the Haig Room was the site for the annual Arabic LEARN conference, a gathering of Arabic instructors nationwide who met for the betterment of language education. Over the summer, math teachers gathered to discuss best practices in their field of education. At the same time, high schoolers visited various classrooms throughout Thayer Hall to see new technologies being developed. Oftentimes, cadets will travel off post to share their knowledge at local schools.
"What's great about this is I have cadets who are teaching information from their majors to these younger kids and also they're learning to communicate this knowledge," Graham said. "And in learning to communicate and educate, they walk out of here better officers."
Graham is encouraged by the emphasis research is broached by senior leaders here. It's an oft-mentioned word the superintendent and dean of academics uses in public addresses.
"Research and outreach are vital components of the U.S. Military Academy," Lt. Gen. David H. Huntoon Jr., USMA superintendent, said recently. "Cadets, staff, and faculty are working continuously to provide relevant research that supports the requirements of our Army and the U.S. government. Research serves key purposes in linking our intellectual capital with our U.S. Army, and ultimately in serving the Soldier serving around the world."
To learn more, visit www.dean.usma.edu/research.