The U.S. Army reached out to thousands of students and educators at the 2019 DECA Conference in Orlando, Florida, April 28-29, by asking them to "Decide to Lead."
Packed into a shipping container, Decide to Lead unfolds into an interactive virtual reality exhibit, providing students and educators with a glimpse of life as an Army officer. Participants take charge in the virtual world, leading an Army convoy around obstacles including a collapsed bridge. At the end of the 10-minute scenario, participants walk away with a leadership trait -- an attribute linked with their choices.
For West Virginia high school student Colton Jones, two roads diverged in the virtual reality scenario and he picked the fastest route to his destination. Meanwhile, the display helped plant the idea of becoming an Army officer in his mind.
"I thought it was fun and engaging," Jones said. "My leadership trait was adaptability. I'm pretty good at being adaptable. I have thought about joining the Army. I have a lot of family in the Army."
Fellow West Virginia student Cord Midkift was impressed with the Army and its message at DECA.
"The Army seems like a well-run organization," Midkift said. "They know who they want."
Decide to Lead was developed by the Army Marketing and Research Group through the Army Game Studio at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. Ownership recently transferred to the U.S Army Mission Support Battalion which continues to pioneer new ways to support Army accessions. The battalion operates static displays used at conventions and a fleet of mobile assets and trailers that crisscross the lower 48 states each year, helping connect America with America's Army. The Mission Support Battalion is based with its headquarters, the Army Marketing and Engagement Brigade at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Decide to Lead joins MSB's National Conventions Division that stages keynote exhibits including the Army's footprint at the annual AUSA convention.
Matching the right asset with the right venue is critically important to piquing the interest of prospects and influencers, according to Mission Support Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. David Eckley. DECA, formerly Distributive Education Clubs of America, is a non-profit organization that prepares students to be college and career ready. The Army shares that mission as a DECA partner, according to Eckley.
"Events like DECA provide an excellent opportunity to reach the people the Army needs to put in boots," Eckley said. "The Decide to Lead asset is focused on supporting accessions for the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Specific ROTC messaging and imagery focused on the challenges and rewards associated with becoming an Army officer are included."
Inside the Orange County Convention Center, the Decide to Lead exhibit was part of a large Army footprint, towering over the other exhibits attracting to visitors as they walked through the exhibit hall entrance.
Nate Lewis, outreach specialist from U.S. Army Cadet Command, gave the display high marks. Lewis joined the team of exhibitors from MSB and USAREC to gather contact info and help move the flow of students and educators through the virtual reality exhibits.
"It's a good icebreaker," Lewis said. "It attracts students to our footprint where we can engage them about becoming a leader in the Army. It's not a win or lose game. Scenarios are student driven. Mostly it helps students understand what it kind of takes to be a leader.
"Most of the kids have not seen an exhibit like this before," Lewis said. "The scenario puts them in a battlefield situation and provides a sense of reality that's new to them. They're forced to make real-life decisions."
Cadets from University of Central Florida joined exhibitors from the Mission Support Battalion and to engage foot traffic. Sharing space were two additional virtual reality displays where participants jumped with the Army Parachute Team or raced alongside former Army NHRA driver Tony Schumacher.
Cadets Zackary Boarder from New York and Alyssa Daily from Miami engaged visitors and field tested the exhibit.
"It was interesting," Boarder said. "If I wasn't already in ROTC and I had the opportunity to try it, it would definitely interest me in the Army. "
Daily said it took a couple minutes to get used to the scenario. "The exhibit is on target," Daily said. "The scenario provided a test of leadership."
DECA members Christy Xie and Lilly Zhu walked away from the display with some more information about being an officer in the U.S. Army.
"The graphics were very good and the scenario was engaging. I felt like I was really involved in deciding what happened," Xie said.
"It was pretty realistic," Zhu said. "This was my first time experiencing the scenario."