Innovation at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) isn’t just limited to new technology. A groundbreaking laboratory developed in the school’s Department of Defense Management (DDM) is becoming a key enabler to student innovation efforts in contracting – and earning national recognition in the process.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Finkenstadt, a former assistant professor in DDM, was honored with the National Contract Management Association (NCMA) 2023 Innovation in Contracting Award for his establishment of NPS’ Simulation and Ideation Lab for Applied Sciences (SILAS), a mobile computer lab dedicated to supporting the creativity and collaboration necessary for acquisition and DDM’s new Innovation Capstone Project (ICP) initiative. SILAS uses innovative gaming and simulations to educate and train contracting officers, improving how the military buys and delivers weapons and supplies.
“Winning this award demonstrates two important things,” said Finkenstadt, who received his award at the 2023 NMCA World Congress, held July 23-26 in Nashville, Tennessee. “First, that the work being done at SILAS is relevant to the larger acquisition community, and second, that SILAS has successfully created a multi-disciplinary, multi-organizational environment for evolutionary ideation and innovation.”
“The lab has grown from a grassroots idea between the NPS’ Acquisition Research Program, a few students, and myself into the model for innovation capstones at NPS that has partnered with everyone from the University of California, Berkeley engineering students to computer scientists at North Carolina State University,” he continued. “The products and research completed within SILAS will also build on each other and mature from cohort to cohort, creating a stream of research that allows for greater validation.”
As a physical space, SILAS consists of a dozen interconnected, high-speed gaming laptops laid out to encourage collaboration. As a concept, SILAS is designed to be a formidable catalyst of innovation.
“Innovation is not a space, but really about the people on a team, their ability to work together, and be comfortable doing it,” noted Jeffrey Dunlap, SILAS project manager and NPS DDM lecturer. “SILAS is a great resource for that. It’s the layout of the space, the quality of the computers, and the ability to compile code on a magnitude different than a conventional computer lab. So, although it does have something to do with the space itself, it really has to do with the education and mentorship.”
Successfully piloted during the Spring 2023 quarter, the ICP is an opportunity for NPS’ warrior-scholar students to work with U.S. Navy sponsors on developing and transitioning their innovative ideas to the fleet.
Students completing the ICP collaborate on multidisciplinary teams that connect the diverse skills of NPS faculty, sponsors and industry partners to deliver real solutions to current defense problems. Together, the teams prepare and move proposals to a point where they’re pitching their capstone ideas to a panel of military, industry and acquisition experts.
“The point of this capstone is to take all the great work being done around the NPS campus and put it into a pathway that moves it forward. Think of it like ‘Shark Tank’ for the Navy,” explained DDM chair Raymond Jones, referring to the popular TV show where contestants pitch their business ideas to investors. “We are developing our military students’ ability to lead innovation informed by their operational experience and transition their good ideas to solve real operational problems.”
“4044 is more of the introduction to innovation, educational component and 4090 is really students’ time to do innovation. Paired with a mentor, they’ll have free range to use SILAS to build either a software prototype or acquisition documentation,” Dunlap said. “All those resources will be available there.”
Finkenstadt, who is currently assigned to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Contracting, originally conceived of SILAS in 2021 while watching his 14-year-old son play video games. One game in particular was teaching his son complicated subjects, like resource management supply chains, in order to win, leaving Finkenstadt amazed that he was able to understand the topics.
“It sort of sparked this idea … I wondered if we could use video games to teach contracting because logistics and resource management are not very exciting to learn in a classroom,” Finkenstadt recalled. “So, we built a game.”
Finkenstadt pitched the idea to AIRC and procured initial funding. Together with several students, he created “Sandbox Contracting,” a gamification of the principles of acquisition contracting.
“It’s basically a first-person shooter game involving gun battles and bomb defusing, in which success depends on players’ ability to correctly answer questions about federal acquisition rules and regulations,” he said. “It’s really pretty fun!”
Gamified learning – building games or simulations to promote learning of traditional material – has a long and storied history in the DOD, dating back at least to 1883, when U.S. Army Maj. William R. Livermore used topographical maps to practice the art of war. Livermore’s work was itself based on Kriegsspiel, a tabletop game the Prussian military had used since 1812 to train its officers.
Such games are played to stimulate creative thinking, decision making and problem solving. Good gamification allows players to synthesize new knowledge and make critical judgements.
Testing out “Sandbox Contracting,” the results of which Finkenstadt published in a March 2023 Proceedings article, demonstrated 15 percent greater knowledge retention among players of the game on high-performance gaming computers versus a control group provided information via traditional pedagogy.
Funding provided by the DOD Acquisition Innovation Research Center (AIRC) allowed Finkenstadt and DDM to pilot SILAS with the ICP over the Spring 2023 quarter, and the lab has already precipitated a host of student projects.
“We’ve used it as a place to work on Hacking for Defense projects and some large simulations that we’ve developed for supply chain war games,” Finkenstadt said. “What SILAS has ended up growing into is this idea of a sort of innovation ideation space where we build some basic prototypes of games and simulations that can teach some of the topics from defense management, and then we can test them out in the same space.”
SILAS, meanwhile, will be adopted as the innovation centrifuge for the ICP program as Jones and Dunlap expand the lab to include the concept of digital twins, an emerging technology simulating real-world scenario learning and mentorship based on digital duplication of acquisition documentation, processes and problem sets.
“We see the simulation part of SILAS potentially being an area that we’ll be able to run these simulations on,” said Dunlap. “The next big thing in DDM is being able to wargame acquisition scenarios.”
The SILAS lab will continue under DDM leadership, supporting the innovation cycle at NPS and the Secretary of the Navy’s initiative to accelerate innovation by leveraging Department of the Navy academic institutions, as outlined in the recently released Naval Education Strategy.