Hacking for Defense at the Batten School

By Molly Hannon

On the last day of fall classes, while other students prepared for the onslaught of exams, seven student teams from the Batten School traveled to the Pentagon to present their semester-long projects to officials from the Department of Defense (DoD). These 31 undergraduates were part of UVA’s inaugural Hacking for Defense (H4D) course, which provides students the opportunity to work on actual national security problems in close collaboration with DoD sponsors.

The H4D course is part of a wider initiative at Batten’s National Security Policy Center (NSPC), led by Professor of Politics and Public Policy Phil Potter, to engage directly with the policy and defense communities. This fall’s class was the result of a partnership between Batten and the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator, a DoD organization that builds new communities of innovators to solve national security problems.

“If you believe what we believe: that talent is equally distributed across gender, race, ethnicity, geography and socio-economic class, then the Department of Defense needs to engage more than just 1 percent of the U.S. population in its problem-solving processes,” said Morgan Plummer, Managing Director of the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator. “We need students from UVA, and other top-tier universities, to help us see problems from different angles, offer new perspectives, and help us figure out new solutions. It’s a truly complex world out there, and we need the intellectual diversity these students offer; we won’t succeed without them.”

Batten Professor of Public Policy Brad Carson is the lead instructor for the H4D course and will continue to lead the course next year. As a former congressman from Oklahoma and Under-Secretary of Defense under the Obama administration, Professor Carson brought a wealth of defense and policy experience to the classroom.

“H4D is a class that helps students learn about the intelligence community and the Defense Department, while also helping those government agencies find answers to some of the most vexing problems they face,” said Carson. “It is a class designed for maximum impact both for the student and their government partners.”

Brian Pippert with the Defense Logistics Agency worked closely with the students to refine and narrow the problem before working on solutions. A key part of this process included conducting interviews with stakeholders. Pippert arranged for the students to interview employees and leadership from DLA Troop Support Subsistence, DLA’s prime vendors for Korea and Alaska, a manufacturer of Meals, Ready to Eat, contracting officers, an FBI agent, and experts from the DoD Cyber Crime Center. He also shared policies and training information with the students and answered their questions.

“The students were very engaged,” said Pippert “and proposed some ‘quick win’ solutions, like sharing resources with vendors during pre-proposal briefings, incorporating hyperlinks to resources in the solicitation, and developing a chatbot to answer industry partner questions. I was surprised at how clear their picture was of the threats and what’s at stake here. It’s really quite impressive how quickly they picked up on it.”

“H4D was one of the most rewarding classes during our time at UVA. The opportunity to learn from and work with policy experts to generate impactful, real-world solutions to complex governmental problems and then to be able to present those solutions at the Pentagon was a unique adventure and highlight of our collegiate experiences,” said Cole Attar (BA’19) who is minoring in Social Entrepreneurship at Batten, “The memories, knowledge, and friendships that we’ve gained from this course are things that we will carry with us well past graduation.”

Professor Potter and the NSPC will continue to refine and expand the program next year. Next spring, Potter will lead an MPP version of the course in partnership with the Law School and School of Engineering and Applied Science. This format and partnership will allow students to tackle complex problems that have a combination of policy, technical, and legal dimensions.

“Hacking for Defense is a unique opportunity for UVA students,” said Potter. “They get to interact with real government officials to solve real national security challenges facing our country. At the same time, they’re learning skills that they can apply no matter where their career takes them. There is no other program like it.”