Projects Day: The culmination of academic work

Story by Michelle Eberhart
Assistant Editor

WEST POINT, N.Y. (May 20, 2016) - U.S. Military Academy at West Point Class of 2016 cadets proudly displayed their capstone projects throughout the academic buildings of the Academy April 28. After two semesters and hundreds of hours of hard work, senior cadets could finally unveil the projects that they had worked on all year.

At the beginning of the first semester, cadets are able to develop a research project that allows the opportunity to pursue a research topic through a thesis or capstone project or expand on the practical experience that they may have gained on an Academic Individual Advanced Development (AIAD) that may be sponsored by external organizations. Some of these projects are meant to identify the needs of the Army, the Department of Defense, federal agencies and others are cadets' personal ideas.

"Projects Day is an academic day where all the departments allow their projects and their sponsors, as well as alumni to come together and present research that's come out of capstone projects, AIADs, and independent research projects," said Dr. Elizabeth Velilla, the assistant dean for the Institute for Innovation and Development and the Director of Research Operations, said. "It's basically a day where you have people that are coming from all over the country to highlight the things that they're doing."

One way to highlight the advances that cadets have made throughout the semester is the Scott R. Clark Innovation Award.

"There is a criteria for the Scott Clark Award, it has to be an innovative project that directly benefits the warfighter, so it has to be something that is going to improve their life and it's something that the Soldier could use at all times," Velilla said. "It has to be very unique, we try to make sure that it hasn't been re-hashed several times over."

Projects were submitted by each department and critiqued by a panel of judges. The winner will be announced May 6.

"I think the biggest takeaway would be how much that we do at West Point just benefits all of the Army, because often times when people look at the Academy, they just think of cadets in the classroom," Velilla said. "It's so important to be able to take what you're doing in the classroom, in the lab, and be able to push it out to the big Army to let them know what technology is out there. That, I think, is so special."

The Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering took over the Kimsey Center, exhibiting projects ranging from concrete canoes to an aviation wash rack.

Col. Fred Myer, the deputy department head, says the cadets have been working hard.

"This sort of project gives a cadet or cadet team the opportunity to take on an individual project with some challenges and things that they have to solve, and it gives them, really, a wide open space to figure out how to solve a problem then how to propose a solution to meet the client's need," Myer said.
Myer worked with cadets on two different projects, one being the SIP-Hut 5.0, a project he's worked on with senior cadets for the past five years.

Class of 2016 Cadet Jeremy Matsumoto was one of the cadets who worked on the project.
"The SIP-Hut is basically insulated panels to replace the barracks hut that the Army uses today," Matsumoto said of the hut that is 75 percent more energy efficient than the typical barracks. "It's rapidly deployable and rapidly deconstructed, so we can construct it in less than four hours and de-construct it in less than four hours, as opposed to a barracks hut which takes up to ten times the amount of time to construct."

Matsumoto estimates that he and his teammates worked about 300 hours each for the project, but learned a lot throughout the process.

"I think the biggest takeaway is that we don't know the 'supposed to be' right way, we don't know the way things are done and because of that you have a lot of different ideas coming out of here," Matsumoto said. "Every now and then you have new innovative ideas that can really be implemented."
Col. Joseph Hanus agrees.

"The greatest benefit our cadets get is that they get a team-based design experience with an open-ended problem," Hanus, an academy professor in Civil Engineering, said. "There is no one answer, they have to tackle it from all the things they've learned up until now, so it's a culminating event that challenges them."

Hanus noted that these cadets are tackling real-world problems as they work for customers or companies throughout the course of their projects.

"It's unlike any other course they might take, it's not a course, it's an experience," Hanus continued. "It's probably the most realistic environment we can create at the institution."

Cadet Caleb McNeill's group was sponsored by the U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center (NSRDEC) and they also had advisors from the Army Research Labs.

"Our project redistributes the weight of body armor from the shoulders to the hips and the Army has a problem with lower back issues from increasingly heavy loads on Soldiers' shoulders," McNeill explained. "So what our project aims to do is re-distribute that weight from the shoulders to the hips and bypass the lower back and hopefully reduce energy consumption."

McNeill and his team will have their final meeting with NSRDEC in May and will also be competing in a presentation at MIT.

Cadet Tom Grady and his team had some hands-on experience building a concrete canoe for their term-end project. After finishing their project, the group competed in a regional competition where they raced their boats.

"Last year when we were juniors, there was a group of us that got together and we decided that we wanted to work on a project together and we knew this would be a project that was kind of fun to do," Grady said. "It was something new that we really enjoyed."

Unlike some groups, Grady's team had no sponsors and had to learn how to meet deadlines while operating independently.

"All the materials and everything that we have here, we ordered through our system and kind of just made them on our own," Grady said. "I learned a lot about scheduling and to front-load as much as possible.

"This is the last step and especially now that we got our brief and presentation done, I'm ready to graduate!" he said.

In Jefferson Hall, the Systems Engineering Department held a conference for Project's Day. They invited students from other academic institutions to compete against cadets in 10 tracks.

"We have a large contingent of other universities coming to this and these groups are competing against our cadets in several different tracks," Dr. Kenneth McDonald of the Systems Engineering Department said. "Those presentations that are in that track compete against each other for best presentation or best-in-track award."

McDonald says the conference is unique from other departments because it allows the cadets to see what students from other schools have been working on as well.

He also said it's been rewarding watching the seniors grow throughout the year.

"You have all these different agencies and all these corporations in industry and they give you a project and the project itself ends up being a real-world problem," McDonald said. "So, all of a sudden, it becomes real, (the cadets) need to mature intellectually and mature in regard to their own confidence in themselves through this process."

McDonald also mentioned that he is impressed by the high caliber projects produced by cadets throughout the Academy.

"I know there are tremendously great projects throughout, I think every department has strengths and produces great work, that's what I love about the Academy," he said. "In the projects you see the results of years of hard work and you end up seeing a difference in the cadets as they prepare to graduate, they have produced something of great relevance and is the culmination of some hard, hard work."

Head of the Department of Systems Engineering, Col. Rob Kewely, explained that Projects Day allows cadets to solve real-life problems that they don't have access to in a classroom setting.

"It's a chance to culminate that yearlong experience," Kewely said. "A lot of these cadets are briefing the clients who sponsored these particular projects who are per chance going to take those projects back into their own organization and use them for the Army or DOD or we even do some for industry.

"They learn how to overcome adversity," Kewely continued. "As an instructor, this day is really rewarding."