Tactical Problems…Practical Solutions

FROM ADDRESSING CLIMATE CHANGE AND HAWAI‘I’S HIGH HOUSING COSTS to expanding mental health services and preparing for active shooter scenarios on base, the University of Hawai‘i’s (UH) Hacking4X program has created opportunities for its undergraduate and graduate students to gain hands-on innovation education and training while developing viable solutions to real-world problems.

The semester-long course focuses on training students in the Lean Startup methodology used by entrepreneurs and businesses around the world. While working in multidisciplinary teams, students conduct at least 50 stakeholder interviews during the customer discovery process to validate and iterate a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or solution. Students present every single week on the interviews they conducted to understand how to synthesize new information and continuously improve or pivot their minimum viable product.

“Hacking4X is designed as a flipped classroom, and the goal is to understand what your customer really wants,” said Gloria Choo, National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) regional engagement principal for Hawai‘i. “It’s a fantastic way to understand and apply the skills that they learn in the classroom to a problem out in the real world.”

Improving Mission Safety

Since launching the program in 2021 in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) NSIN, UH has engaged various military branches throughout the state to collaborate on addressing mission-related challenges.

“We’ve got a lot of tactical problems since we operate a lot of complicated equipment in different environments from dense urban environments to jungles all the way out in the Indo-Pacific, across a division of 13,000 people,” said 25th Infantry Division (25th ID) Brigadier General Jeffrey Van Antwerp.

“Being able to bring in people who have different perspectives, networks and resources to take a look at those problems with us, is great! Even if we don’t find an immediate solution, we gain a better appreciation and understanding of a problem to help us curate a better solution, which is very beneficial.”

A couple major issues that the 25th ID brought to the program related to helicopter rescue missions, including accidental injuries and deaths from helicopter rotor blades, particularly in non-designated landing zones in Southeast Asia.

“We started off interviewing a lot of people to better understand their interpretation of the problem,” said Jason Kanemoto, a University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UH Mānoa) College of Engineering undergraduate student, who worked on the rotor blade project. “We got to visit the base a few times, see the problem and talk to different people, which gave us a clearer understanding of what the issue actually was.”

That led Kanemoto and his team to present solutions that included LED-lit pathways and rotor blades to increase visibility of the helicopter’s rotor blades.

H4X end-of-year presentation at The Entrepreneurs Sandbox.

“What I really liked about this class is that it’s so hands-on. No one wants to be an engineer to sit in a lecture hall. You want to be an engineer to do something, to build something. What was cool about this class is that you get the funding to go and actually try to build something,” added Kanemoto.

Some students have also taken advantage of additional opportunities through NSIN’s X-Force summer internship and Maker programs, which provide additional funding, resources and guidance to advance conceptual ideas into working prototypes — like the Downward Shield, which decreases patient stretcher spinout and improves patient transportation safety during helicopter rescue missions.

“Hacking4X provides an opportunity to dig deeper, to really learn about the user, learn about different customers, learn about soldiers in the field and create products that really change the world,” said 25th ID Captain Mahdi Al Hussein, who worked with Kanemoto’s team. “This is what it means to really be an engineer or a computer scientist or in the business field. It means actually implementing your craft in a way that affects the lives of others.”

Addressing Hawai‘i’s High Cost of Living

For the programs’ first private industry partnership, students worked with First Insurance Company of Hawai‘i to address increasing deferred maintenance costs for rampant water damage repairs in aging condominium buildings, the number one source of insurance claims and a top driver of insurance premiums.

The team created an educational website and app to provide property managers, condo board members, owners and insurance companies with access to interactive training videos and quizzes to be able to identify signs of water damage in order to address repairs sooner.

Securing Internships and Jobs

Since the course launched, 86 students from UH Mānoa and University of Hawai‘i Maui College have participated in the program and more than a dozen have secured internships and jobs as a result, crediting the course for helping them develop professional skills and network.

“Working with the DoD and other private sector partners on real-world problems and project-based team learning is the best way for our students to get the kind of experience they need once they graduate,” said Brennon Morioka, dean of the UH Mānoa College of Engineering. “This program is giving our students an opportunity to learn more about themselves and how they approach teamwork, working for customers and clients, and on projects where they can see an actual product that can be used in the real world.”

Due to the success of the program, UH plans to continue to expand the program to address community issues in its other research areas of excellence, including healthcare, energy, water and climate resilience and food security.

H4X Fall 2022 student teams and program partners at Schofield Barracks Lightning Lab for their end-of-semester presentations.