Done right, challenges work. There’s an established record of success with the concept and they absolutely can go on to become funded programs. But only if they’re held in the first place! As noted in “Why Work with Undergraduate Researchers?” (published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information), the “potential for growing major new U.S. industries that can provide a sizeable return on federal investments...is not being realized…” Why is that? Because not enough attention is being given to the innovation ecosystem. Challenges are a great way to address that problem!
WBI hosted the Beyond 5G challenge showcase in May of 2019. This event brought together 8 university teams (U of Cincinnati, The Ohio State University, U of Texas-Houston, U of Texas – San Antonio, USC-Irvine, U of Oklahoma, North Carolina State University, and Texas Tech University) that demonstrated what they had accomplished with the Software Defined Radio kits supplied by AFRL. The teams demonstrated multiple uses from remote sensing of heart and breathing rates, frequency hopping with an LTE waveform, detection of intermittent waveforms, and AI based radio, and secure transmission of high-quality pictures in a contested environment.
As noted in the NCBI report, one talent pool that savvy seasoned researchers are wise to turn to is undergrads. These students are still honing their own research skills and career goals, meaning they’re in exploratory mode all the time. This spurs creativity and ambition as they seek out assistance to prepare for jobs and/or graduate school. By offering these young minds an apprenticeship-style research opportunity, companies receive fresh, inspiring ideas from students who are grateful for the chance to work together. Each team working the challenge was able to set up their system and demonstrate what they had accomplished to the other teams and AFRL SMEs.
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, but not without some investment in training and other associated costs. Still, the return on investment typically outweighs other factors. In fact, many advisors find intrinsic value in developing the future of the workforce, as well as the personal rewards of a mentorship relationship. Let’s face it, undergrads can reinvigorate the energy levels of a stale lab setting and thus up production and enjoyment of the work! And when it comes to potentially recruiting others, it pays to have younger team members who may be closer to the age or demographic of desired candidates. The students enjoyed the opportunity to interact with the other university teams and share ideas. Over 20 researchers from AFRL were able to attend these demonstrations. WBI engaged with the Institute for Competitive Science to add depth to this project and expand the reach into other universities. The AFRL Sensors Directorate sponsors were thrilled with the results and are planning a follow-on challenge that will engage more teams next year.
Why Work with Undergraduate Researchers? Differences in Research Advisors’ Motivations and Outcomes by Career Stage (NCBI)
Spurring Innovation Through Competitions (Sloan Review, MIT)