The Academy Research Council and the Center for Enhanced Performance presented the 2021 Outstanding Pitch Award to three cadets April 13 at the Jefferson Hall Library.
Class of 2024 Cadets Lily Schur and Francis Turoski and Class of 2023 Cadet Liam Reff were awarded an Outstanding Pitch Award certificate, a gift card and Dean’s coin for academic excellence for their engagement with the Research LAUNCH (Leaders pursuing Academic excellence, Undergraduate research, National scholarships, Capstone projects and Honors) program. They also received the top scores from the multi-disciplinary faculty judging teams.
The Research LAUNCH program promotes cadet scholarship, although no cadet scholarship is currently awarded due to the first year of this competition, and provides resources for cadets to conceptualize a plan for future research study.
Dr. Natesha Smith-Isabell, the RS103 Information Literacy and Critical Thinking course director in CEP, is the creator/coordinator of the Scholar Enrichment Initiative (SEI) at the U.S. Military Academy, a new program designed to promote the scholarly engagement of plebes and yearlings or the two underclassmen groups. One of the programs that SEI co-sponsored is the Research LAUNCH program.
“Research LAUNCH is a two-part program designed to encourage cadets to become involved in undergraduate research,” Smith-Isabell said. “This event targeted fourth- and third-class cadets, particularly those who are considering applying for research scholarships in the future (e.g., Stamps, Goldwater, Rhodes).”
Dr. Gordon Cooke, the West Point Simulation Center research director who coordinates any research efforts within the center, said the first part of the LAUNCH program, “Research Hacks,” was accomplished virtually Feb. 24 and focused on introducing cadets to the research process.
Cooke said the event started with a faculty panel discussing what research is and then followed by breakout rooms where a small number of cadets discussed their ideas for a research project with one or two faculty members who provided feedback and guidance.
Then six weeks later, on April 7, the Pitch Competition was an opportunity for cadets to pitch their research ideas they created to a panel of faculty judges.
“The cadets presented their pitch … and only had three minutes to pitch their research idea,” Cooke said. “Most of the time with the judges was allocated to feedback so the faculty could help the cadets refine their idea even after the competition.”
Smith-Isabell added, “Through participation in the program, cadets were able to gain a better understanding of the research process and create a research proposal pitch, which they may be able to carry forward and execute in the future. The program is sponsored by the Academy Research Council and the Center for Enhanced Performance.”
The Outstanding Pitch Award came to fruition, Cooke said, because the Academy Research Council Collaboration Subcommittee “always looks for ways to increase collaboration across the academy and between departments.”
Members of the ARC Collaboration Subcommittee include the chair, Lt. Col. James Bluman, Cooke, Smith-Isabell, Dr. David Frey and Lt. Col. Andrew Kick.
“The ARC’s purpose is to foster cooperation among various USMA departments, centers and agencies; Department of the Army and Department of Defense research organizations; and other research communities in order to promote academic research at USMA,” Smith-Isabell said. “Given its representative membership and its collective, current knowledge of the policies governing academic research at USMA, as well as emerging opportunities and existing challenges, it also serves as an advisory and recommending body to the Dean.”
Cooke added, “The Superintendent’s ARC is a body made of representatives from every department to coordinate research efforts and share information. Every department designates one voting member, but meetings are open to anyone interested in attending.”
CEP, who is partnered with ARC in this venture, is a comprehensive student services center, Smith-Isabell added, that helps cadets develop academic and mental skills, and contribute to cadets’ character development.
The facilitation of the Research LAUNCH program is co-chaired by Smith-Isabell and Cooke.
“Although I am a member of the subcommittee, my primary role with this project was as the facilitator of CEP’s Scholar Enrichment Initiative,” Smith-Isabell said. “Dr. Cooke’s primary role was as a member of the ARC. We co-created and identified the curriculum, marketing materials, resources and recruited the staff and faculty volunteers for the program.”
In the recruitment of staff and faculty volunteers, Cooke said the faculty representation comes from the humanities, sciences and engineering departments. He also said that the USMA librarians were involved and helpful due to their expertise in searching existing literature, which is the “first step of any good research project.”
For the Research LAUNCH program, there were three judging teams for the Pitch Competition with 12 faculty judges, including Cooke on Team 2 and Smith-Isabell on Team 3.
When the introduction of the program began in February, 43 cadets registered for LAUNCH, but only 12 cadets created and briefed their proposals to be judged in April.
“The cadets were judged across four areas to include research question viability, potential of the proposed research to contribute to the cadet’s academic discipline as well as the needs of USMA or the Army, aesthetics/organization of the pitch slide and delivery of the pitch,” Smith-Isabell said. “The (top) three cadets scored high in all four categories and they had a clear idea of how to move their research forward.”
Cooke added, “This is a difficult thing for underclass students to do, but these cadets did it.”
Schur received first place for her concept plan for “Different not Disabled – Integrating the Unique Abilities of Autism in the Army.” Reff took second place with his conceptualized plan on “Decellularized Tissue and Bio Printing.” Turoski earned third place with the concept of his future research study in “Geographic Information Systems Signal Transmissions.”
Schur said she is humbled and honored to have been chosen for first place and one of the winners of the Pitch Competition.
“Being recognized for my research (concept) made me feel like my voice was heard,” Schur said. “I felt pride in knowing my project had connected with the panelists in an effective manner. Receiving this recognition provides me the motivation and logistical means to move forward in my research — allowing me to pursue progress in the Army.”
The program, which Schur became involved with because she took Smith-Isabell’s RS103 course, allowed her to work on something that she is passionate about — Autism.
“Ultimately, I’m inspired by my autistic brother, Connor. My project has allowed me to dissect how exactly people with intellectual disabilities can be integrated into the military,” Schur said. “When I started my research, I knew there were a few jobs that people with autism could easily fit into. As I continued my research, I came across a plethora of MOS’s that use skillsets that many people with high-functioning autism have.”
During her research, she came across a troop of disabled Soldiers who served the Union during the Civil War.
“This unit was a mix of Soldiers who were physically disabled as well as Soldiers who were intellectually disqualified from being in the Army,” Schur said. “Regardless, this unit was ultimately responsible for protecting Washington D.C. (the Union Capital) from the Confederacy.”
Schur also met with Chris Neeley, former chairman of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, who has a passionate desire to make a similar opportunity in America.
“He has done a wealth of research in this subject matter,” Schur said. “He is currently creating a program called the ‘Corps of Honor,’ a program in the South Carolina National Guard that integrates autistic citizens.”
She also came across a program in the Israeli Army entitled, “Special in Uniform,” which recruits citizens with intellectual disabilities to train and work in the military under specific jobs.
“The Israeli Army’s acceptance of autistic people has been extremely successful,” Schur, who is a Law and Legal Studies major, said. “Statistics show that many of these Soldiers are recruited by companies like Intel and eBay after they leave the Army. If Israel can do it, why can’t we?”
The big thing she wants people to know that with her brother, Connor, many people may see this as an upsetting narrative, but most fail to realize the unique skill sets and talents that people with autism possess.
“People with autism possess impeccable memory, incredible attention to detail, setting their mind to a task and not quitting until it is done exactly the way it should be done,” Schur said. “These skills sound like the essential traits for an Army Soldier. They are also the abilities my autistic brother possesses.
“However, my brother has struggled with finding a job that fully accepts him and all his capabilities,” she added. “Connor, like many intellectual disabled people, struggles with an overwhelming and paralyzing feeling of exclusion. Exploring this research, I hope to create a data-founded pathway of unique progress in the military and progress for talented autistic people across America.”
Turoski also learned about the LAUNCH program through the RS103 course. The program, he said, helped him conceptualize concepts and “come up with a concrete game plan that would put my research ideas into place. Plans without actions are just ideas but putting them into place was pretty easy once we reached out to faculty.”
The Geographic Information Systems major chose his research study due to his major. Col. Christopher Oxendine, academy professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, gave him a tour of research that the GENE department was doing already.
“It was so intriguing that I knew I had a future in GIS,” Turoski said.
Turoski said he has loved geography since arriving at West Point. Lt. Col. William Wright, GIS program director in GENE, showed Turoski his research on signal transmissions under tree canopies and Dr. Smith-Isabell pushed him to think of something outside of Wright’s research.
“This made me think of the power of sunlight,” Turoski said. “I knew from my Cyber class that sunlight has the power to flip 1’s and 0’s in code, so I thought it would be worth looking into how sunlight effects transmissions.”
Turoski’s hope is to one day be a part of a professional research project.
“I am not hard to please when it comes to an experience in something new that helps develop me as an officer,” Turoski said. “When my research takes off, I hope to learn about communications tech and hopefully make improvements in how cadets communicate during training.”
As this group of cadets take off with their future research projects, the hope from Cooke and Smith-Isabell is that more cadets participate and financial support is provided to the Research LAUNCH program in the future.
“I hope for cadets to use their pitches as the foundation for research projects to be proposed for the Stamps and Goldwater scholarship opportunities,” Smith-Isabell said. “Additionally, we would like greater integration with the Academic departments so financial support can be provided to the winners to help fund the startup costs for engaging the proposed research project.”
Cooke said this program also exposes cadets to faculty from a variety of disciplines while allowing them to get feedback from faculty with a variety of perspectives about approaches to research topics.
“I think there is also great value for faculty members who participate because it helps them make new connections with faculty in other departments,” Cooke said. “The cadet proposals created a way for the faculty from multiple departments to talk together and discover ways that their varied disciplines can connect to the same problem. This could lead to potential collaborations in the future.”
(Editor’s note: Cadet Reff chose to not interview for this story.)