AFWERX, USAFA Spark, partner to offer training and networking to innovators

  • Published
  • By Kacey Napier and Tim Tresslar

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – The U.S. Air Force Academy 2023 Innovation Week, sponsored by AFWERX Spark, trained cadets, along with Department of Defense partners and Airmen innovators in design thinking and pitch coaching competencies. The event also served as an opportunity to network and share resources between the tactical Department of the Air Force Spark Cells and the U.S. Air Force Academy Spark Team.

AFWERX Spark offered support for the event in response to requests from the USAFA Spark team to attract more cadets into the innovation space, receive more in-depth training and provide skills they can use as future leaders and innovators. The event drew more than 75 people from 19 organizations, including 16 cadets.

“We are delighted to lead participants from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Spark Cells in an innovation, design thinking and pitch coaching sprint with the goal of strengthening skills in ideation, problem framing and prototyping,” said Dr. Sherry L. Gevedon, AFWERX innovation education leader. “This experience aligns with our goals for developing an innovator’s mindset aligned with Operational Imperatives as our highest priority.”

AFWERX Spark Cells are an innovation network that encourages members of the Air Force and Space Force to explore new technologies and ideas, and connects them with industry and educational leaders to solve real-world problems.

The Spark Cell at the Academy was created in 2019, and has expanded in the three years since. Currently led by Cadet First Class Manmeet Pelia, the director of the 2022-23 team, the Academy Cell primarily consists of one director, nine executive directors, and 24 “innovation actualizers.”

The event began March 20, with a tour of the Academy followed by briefings to educate new entrants in the innovation space about AFWERX, an Air Force Research Laboratory directorate, and Spark Cell design and operations.

“The first day was programmed to establish a foundation and a common starting point,” said Maj. Aaron Beebe, AFWERX Spark Cell lead. “With the diverse collection of attendees to include a team from Transportation Security Administration lift cells, there was a need to create a shared vision of the operating environment and we achieved this with the tour of the Academy campus resources in the morning and followed that up with AFWERX 101 and a discussion on Spark Cells in the afternoon.”

Day two and three focused on developing the skills needed for innovation – creating an innovative mind-set, putting those skills into practice and having the ability to communicate ideas effectively. Participants were provided with a design thinking crash-course and opportunities to apply the concepts presented by Drs. Gevedon and Shawn Swanson, AFWERX Spark program manager, with help from Patty McDermott of Mitre Innovation. Airmen, cadets and DOD partners then broke into six teams and proposed ways in which the operational Air Force and the USAFA Spark team might enable a collaborative effort of resource and expertise sharing.

Gabriel Akins, a senior who joined USAFA’s Spark Cell during his sophomore year, participated in the March workshop in part to support his local Spark Cell.

“It’s really just to bring everyone together and make those connections happen,” Akins said. “I mean, it’s personal to me because I’ve been a part of this Spark Cell here since I was a sophomore and I just love this stuff. So anything I can do to help out the Academy and USAFA Spark, I want to be a part of it.”

Akins, who wants to become a fighter pilot, said he was familiar with design thinking prior to taking the Innovation Week courses. However, the breakout sessions and collaborations he experienced last month not only deepened his understanding of this methodology, but also provided him another tool for effecting change in the Air Force.

“As an officer, being able to have people come to you with different ideas and improve whatever unit, whatever squad, or whatever you’re a part of, that’s huge,” Akins said. “Keeping that mindset of forward-thinking, moving fast, making changes, rather than stagnating and staying in the old traditions, I think that’s really important.”

Thursday’s agenda was designed around the afternoon’s presentation of the third annual Falcon Tank, the Academy’s version of the AFWERX Spark Tank, in which cadets pitched their ideas and research to their leadership for an opportunity to advance their work. Morning discussions and small group breakout sessions, which included topics such as the AFWERX Fellowship program, USAFA Spark, TSANational Security Innovation NetworkRapidX and Human Performance provided attendees with an opportunity to engage with each of the subject matter experts and learn more about the resources available to them.

“Participant response to the tools, resources, training and networking opportunities provided from the Innovation Week event were overwhelmingly positive,” Beebe said. “The findings from the design think exercise left an actionable solution for the AFWERX Spark team to take on, which entails recruitment of a core group of event participants into the Fellowship program’s next cohort. Additionally, the team will continue to work efforts to drive up collaboration and reduce redundancy of innovation efforts.”