NSIN Taps Mines Ingenuity to Assist the DoD

Ask the expert: Jason Combs

How does NSIN tap the ingenuity of college students at Mines to help our nation’s defense?

In May 2020, South Dakota Mines and a Department of Defense program office called the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN – pronounced “Ensign”) agreed to a two-year experiment. The hypothesis: can South Dakota Mines and DoD benefit by collaborating on real-world problems? After two years, the definitive answer is yes. If you want specific examples, visit the Mines website. To understand how Mines students benefit from NSIN’s engagement, keep reading.

NSIN programs start with real-world problem statements. It is very motivating to students to know that they are working on a problem where the sponsor wants to implement their solution. In many cases, the students visit, in this case Ellsworth Air Force Base and experience hands-on opportunities with leading-edge technologies. Additionally, developing a solution rather than building a defined widget offers a freedom that engineering students don’t often have.

Students and DoD mission partners work as a team. It is far too common to limit problem-solving to two interactions between the student and the problem owner (Requirement and Delivery). This lack of interaction sabotages the chances of success for both parties. NSIN programs promote collaboration where both the students and problem sponsor(s) work as a team towards an agreed upon definition of success. Locally, we talk about building a skateboard or something that offers a complete (although small) value to the sponsor at the end of the program. Not only is this a convergent approach that brings the two groups together, but it also sets a clear expectation that only routine interactions can achieve.

Finally, promising solutions have follow-on program opportunities for commercialization. Building on the skateboard analogy, promising solutions can continue with other NSIN or other DoD programs. Sometimes this looks like a building block approach, and in other cases the next steps for a solution can be a program focused on the commercialization of a product or technology. Over the past two years Mines has had multiple examples of both.

Innovation and progress truly take teamwork. We are always looking to build a larger team!

Jason Combs is the NSIN University Program Director at South Dakota Mines.