By LTJG Kaitlin O’Donnell
Back in December Josh Kvavle came to us with a simple question: How can we help the technologists better understand the warfighter and the atmosphere they work in?
A few years ago at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), Josh created a “Learn Warfighter Needs Workshop” for the Grassroots S&T technologists with just this in mind. But with only a few hours of sailor interaction in the past, he seemed all but qualified for the job. After working with USS BENFOLD on a few other projects that junior Sailors pitched at Athena events, Josh and SPAWAR came to us and wanted to know what we think the technologists should know about what we do.
After a day of collaboration and brainstorming with Josh and his team, we started to understand just how little technologists and Sailors knew about each other. So, we figured it might be worth it to create a whole day dedicated to educating these Sailors and scientists about each other, connecting some dots that truly needed to be connected. From there the wheels began to turn and we soon found ourselves planning a fun, informative and collaborative day to continue to help strengthen the bond between SPAWAR and the fleet.
The end goal was simple: Make the Navy better. If the technologists who are creating the systems we use understood the user better, couldn’t they make a better product? How often is a sailor frustrated with the way a system is designed but figure they could never have a say in changing it? What are the problems out there that the technologists aren’t working on yet?
On January 14th, we had the first ever co-sponsored Learn Warfighter Needs Workshop, and based on the incredibly positive response from the more than 60 that participated, it certainly won’t be the last!
The event kicked off with an Introduction to SPAWAR, focused on teaching Sailors what SPAWAR is, what they do and how they can help us. We are extremely fortunate in San Diego to have a fleet concentration area within miles of one SPAWAR’s biggest research, development, test, evaluation and engineering fleet support facilities, yet we barely know what they do up on that hill at Point Loma. After getting a better understanding of how cool their stuff is we were treated to technology tours across some of the most beautiful property in all of San Diego.
Tours were split up between Bayside, Seaside and Topside facilities all with exciting attractions. Sailors got to understand where the scientists work and the scope of their projects through tours of the Marine Mammal Program, the unmanned underwater vehicle program, the robotics lab, model shop, and more. Each tour gave a unique perspective of how much research and development goes into each new piece of technology introduced into the fleet. We definitely developed a greater admiration for the scientists and the work they do to help us fulfill our mission. We wouldn’t be able to do our job serving our country if they weren’t doing their job developing our technology.
After getting familiar with their job and how they brainstorm and come up with new ideas, BENFOLD’s Captain, CDR Rich LeBron gave a great presentation on how his Sailors use The Athena Project and other avenues to express their ideas. But still, the scientists knew very little about the fundamentals of the Navy and our everyday jobs, so we gave a brief interactive presentation to educate them about the ins and outs of shipboard life. We walked them through the chain of command, gave them a perspective into each department, broke down some of our standard acronyms and described our watchstanding. Perhaps even more importantly than painting a picture of the environment, they were able to understand the areas on the ship for which they could help develop new technology. Although the presentation may have seemed basic to most in uniform, it was a great way to take a step back and identify the little things that we take for granted but may be crucial to the scientist when developing new technology.
After understanding Navy lingo a little better, it was time to start the fun stuff! With lunch came some awesome interaction – it was amazing to see how a little mingling could spark big ideas and great conversations all over the room! We had brand new seaman who had only been on the ship for a couple of months engaging with scientists with PHDs from John Hopkins and MIT!
Now THIS was getting very cool.
After lunch, everyone partnered up: At least one Sailor paired with at least one scientist. Sure, there was some shyness at first, but before long, groups popped up all over the room and started getting really excited to start fixing problems! The environment rapidly became electric: Each group identifying problems, but trying hard not to brainstorm solutions until later. Technologists were encouraged to ask some “dumb” questions to get the sailor thinking outside of the box and identify things they might not have noticed on their own. Teams generated problem statements and away we went to brainstorm!
With some brainstorming guidelines and tricks, the room got quiet and everyone quickly began scribbling down on paper. The brainstorming sessions were so successful that we even added extra time to let the creative juices flow! Brainstorming concluded with each group coming up with an idea to prototype. As a new activity to the innovators on BENFOLD, prototyping was a fun way to see your idea come to life and lighten up the activity. It was like a room full of arts and crafts, and very effective for pitching to the large group!
Pitch proposals were very similar to our Athena presentations but were strictly limited to two minutes and given with prototypes in hand. We had presentations that made you laugh, some that gave you that “ah-ha” moment, and some that made many say “Why didn’t I think of that earlier?”.
Ideas included camera technology for maintenance, digital maneuvering board designs, advanced internal communication systems, seawater activated watches, hydraulic flight deck nets, a personalized training app and a spray paint rail system to paint the hull. Some of ideas are already out there, some might not be efficient, and some just might make no sense – but that doesn’t matter. Even if none of the ideas get traction (although some already have) the idea is to develop our Sailors into critical thinkers. At the same time, the technologists are learning the needs of the Sailor and identifying shortfalls for future technology development. It was so cool to see the lightbulbs go off and the smiles on the faces at the end of the day.
At the beginning of December when we met with Josh and the SPAWAR team, I don’t think any of us could have imagined an outcome like this. It’s amazing to see the ideas from the fleet and how much you can create in a few hours. The technologists were excited and eager to go back to their offices and start development and have already been contacting us on ideas generated. Our Sailors came back to the ship proud of their prototypes and supportive of technology, the innovation process and the scientists behind it.
In the end, as cheesy as it might sound, everyone was a winner. Maybe the most important thing, though, was that everyone felt that in some way, however small, we achieved our goal of making the Navy better.
If you ask me, I’d say it’s just the beginning.
LTJG Kaitlin O’Donnell is the Training Officer onboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). She’s a Marine Engineering graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy class of 2010.
Interested in being a part of the next Learn Warfighter Needs Workshop? Want to meet a technologist and get to know more about SPAWAR? If so, contact LTJG O’Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or message The Athena Project on Facebook or Twitter!