SparkED, innovative mindset fuel problem solving techniques through robotics
By Grady Fontana, 412th Test Wing
/ Published July 16, 2021
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
In 2020, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. stated that his vision for the service is to “Accelerate Change or Lose.”
So Airmen from all over the force have charged forward to embrace and further the Air Force culture as innovators.
Edwards Air Force Base was one of those bases that leaned forward and developed a program to foster creative ways that allow Airmen to offer improvements and solutions to the problems they face in everyday operations. This program dates back to 2018 and was called the Hustle Squad and is now referred to as SparkED.
Fast forward to 2021 and SparkED has given birth to many inventions or improved processes that were developed through Airmen ingenuity and their propensity to innovate—through an embrace of science, technology, engineering and math.
“We need to be competitive and we need to compete; and we need to prepare for 2030, 2040 or even 2050,” said Master Sgt. Jason D. Greenwell, career assistance advisor, 412th Test Wing.
Greenwell, who was previously in the electronic warfare career field, has developed a course at Edwards called Project Code Bot, which is designed to develop the skills of problem solving with robots.
Project Code Bot graduated 10 remote students in May 2021 and is slated to conduct the next class August 16-20. The course is a problem-solving-through-robotics course funded by SparkED – 412th TW Innovation Team.
“It’s called Project Code Bot but it’s really about teaching the idea of problem solving,” said Greenwell. "Along the way, students learn design thinking, systems thinking, critical thinking and how to program basic robotics together with data to make informed decisions and solve real-world problems.”
During the course, Greenwell presented students with the challenge of maneuvering a robot through a maze. To maneuver the robot, the students will have to apply those learned skills to accomplish the mission.
“The maze is representative of the problem…any problem,” said Greenwell, who has a bachelor's degree in computer science and a master's degree in systems engineering. “I have data and you have a skill, now use that skill with the data to solve that problem.”
Students programmed the robots in a popular language called Python.
“I took this course because I am interested in robotics. I have my bachelor’s degree in robotics, but I did not have much practical experience programming a bot in Python,” said Christopher M. Allyas, civilian developmental flight test engineer, 775th Test Squadron at Edwards AFB. “I hoped to hone my Python skills more by applying it to a piece of hardware rather than just practicing it on the computer. I believe the skills I gained in this class will help me format my data analysis tools in a more sophisticated format.”
Greenwell believes Airmen have to be able to operate technology in a way that helps solve problems. He refers to a concept called the Digital Airman, one who is comfortable with technology. Courses like Project Code Bot allows Airmen to solve problems through technology.
“I hope this course sparks interest in STEM fields," said Greenwell. “We have to be able to operate that technology in a way that helps us solve problems.”
As Greenwell reflects on what a future Air Force might look like, he believes it’s drenched in technology.
“I think in the future, everybody will need to know some of the basics of programming,” said Greenwell. By understanding programming, future Airmen will be able to dissect the internal workings of software so that they can understand better when trying to decide what systems to implement to solve a problem.
The Code Bot Course was made available through SparkEd. In the summer of 2019, the 412th TW stood up SparkED, an official AFWERX-recognized Spark Cell for Edwards AFB.
According to the AFWERX website, AFWERX’s core mission is to improve Air Force capabilities by connecting innovators, simplifying technology transfer, and accelerating results by connecting diverse, innovative members from industry, academia, and government; creating capabilities options and prototype opportunities for the Air Force; facilitating streamlined acquisition processes; and fostering a culture of innovation in the Airmen.
To help connect Airmen, AFWERX also operates a program called Spark, which has a decentralized network of “Spark Cells” on Air Force bases around the world. Each Spark Cell operates semi-autonomously in pursuit of locally generated ideas and projects. Spark is a grassroots innovation program that empowers Airmen to bring tomorrow’s tools to the Warfighter today.
To submit your idea, visit www.innovativeairforce.com or email SparkED at 412TW.XCITE.Innovation@us.af.mil.