Issues in Education

Air Force Academy’s constantly evolving O.R. program

By Lt. Col. Jesse Pietz, Capt. Drew Ives and Capt. Mark Williams

2017 UPS Prize-winning program, characterized by its “Quick Turn Analysis” course, emphasizes the practical application of operations research.

As a military service academy, the United States Air Force Academy has the unique role of developing future officers for its nation. The Academy’s mission is to “educate, train and inspire men and women to become officers of character motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation.” In the spirit of this mission, the 2017 UPS George D. Smith Prize-winning program prepares its graduates to effectively leverage operations research that enable rational, quantitatively-based decisions for the betterment of U.S. citizens. The program strives to develop well-prepared practitioners through a focus on real-world applications woven into a deliberate and ever-evolving transdisciplinary curriculum.

The U.S. Air Force, established in 1947 as the youngest military service, was born out of a culture of innovation and reliance on technology to defend the nation better. Similarly, operations research, as a discipline, was born out of a need to better allocate scarce resources during World War II. As one might expect, operations research has been important to the Air Force since its inception and continues to be in today’s increasingly complex and resource constrained environment. In fact, the U.S. Air Force Academy is one of only a handful of undergraduate institutions to offer a degree in operations research, beginning shortly after the Academy’s founding in 1954.

Like all military service academies, the Air Force Academy has an extremely competitive admissions process and a rigorous four-year program for those accepted. Cadets must balance their time among their demanding academic, athletic and military responsibilities. The Academy’s academic program is designed with the institution’s mission as well as the identity and culture of the Air Force in mind. The result is a diverse academic core requiring all cadets to be exposed to the arts and humanities in addition to a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Every cadet graduates with a Bachelor of Science degree. More than 50 percent of all cadets, regardless of major, complete an introduction to operations research course. This combination of liberal arts and STEM produces well-rounded graduates capable of thinking critically to solve complex problems. As a result, cadets are some of the most gifted and determined students in the nation. Furthermore, operations research attracts the “best of the best” as it is one of the most technically challenging programs available.

The operations research program is not an independent department. Rather, it is jointly administered by the departments of Computer Science, Economics, Management and Mathematical Sciences. This intentional design enables it to be interdisciplinary and collaborative in nature, taking advantage of the expertise of each specialty to create a custom curriculum. A member of the faculty from each of the four departments manages the program and recommends any changes to the steering group, which is composed of the deans of each department and provides consistent and thoughtful strategic oversight. However, it is the makeup of the faculty that is the key to the program’s desire to continuously improve.

Issues in Education

The U.S. Air Force Academy was the 2017 recipient of the UPS George D. Smith Prize presented by INFORMS.

More than 30 dedicated civilian and military faculty members implement the program with a focus on teaching; the student-to-faculty ratio at the Academy is a surprisingly low 8:1, ensuring all cadets are able to get the personal attention so essential for enrichment. Approximately one-third of the faculty is doctorate-holding civilians who provide long-term continuity and stability in the program as well as practical research. One-third of the faculty is senior military officers who hold a doctorate degree and have served multiple operational tours and overseas deployments, providing a strategic view to ensure the program is aligned with future Air Force needs. Finally, one-third of the faculty is junior military officers, who are recent master’s graduates from a variety of leading institutions that invigorates the curriculum by bringing the latest methods and software developments from their coursework as well as current problem applications from operational tours. The program exposes cadets to a breadth of areas including optimization, statistical modeling, computation and stochastic modeling. The curriculum is grounded in real-world operations research, which permeates all courses and culminates in a yearlong capstone project.

Many courses at the Academy, not exclusively in the operations research program, provide practical projects that are indicative of the work they may do after graduating. These types of projects not only motivate cadets, but they provide invaluable insight into potential Air Force careers. A prime example of this in the operations research program is the Quick Turn Analysis course.

Quick Turn Analysis began as a special topics course in 2009, developed by Lt. Col. Jeremy Noel, who had recently returned from a deployment. It quickly became a permanent course based on demand from the Air Force analytic community as well as positive feedback from students. This intense course is specifically focused on building the analytical skills needed by operations research analysts who sometimes have only a few tools available to them beyond the Microsoft Office suite, the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) programming language and Google Earth with the Keyhole Markup Language (KML), yet they must be able to efficiently analyze and synthesize complex data. Significant emphasis is placed on ensuring students are able to professionally and persuasively communicate analysis results and insights to senior decision-makers through a wide variety of data presentation techniques, informative graphics and geospatial representations.

The development and success of Quick Turn Analysis is characteristic of the program as a whole. It is inherently project-based, emphasizing the practical application of operations research. In addition, its evolutionary nature is the result of the unique makeup of the faculty. A senior military officer recognized the need while on an operational tour and designed a course to meet that need while rotating back to the faculty. Furthermore, rotating faculty constantly improve the content and projects based on their experience, ensuring it continues to be relevant. While Quick Turn Analysis provides valuable experience working on projects with limited time, the senior capstone provides the opportunity for cadets to learn research techniques and work on the complete lifecycle of a project.

The culmination of the operations research program is the six-semester hour capstone course during a cadet’s final year. The capstone enables a team of cadets to work on a project from problem definition and scope through the final delivery to the customer. Customers range from government agencies and non-profit organizations to private businesses from industry. The UPS George D. Smith Prize, presented by INFORMS, was created in the spirit of strengthening ties between institutions that graduate operations research practitioners and industry; the operations research program at the Academy won this prestigious award in 2017 in part as a result of its ability to exceed this intent through its yearlong capstone. Cadets not only deliver valid results to their client, but they often present at national conferences and compete for undergraduate research awards. The capstone provides cadets valuable experience to begin their careers, and their success is evident in the client testimonials and repeat customers.

The U.S. Air Force has 650,000 employees with a $140 billion annual budget and a mission set that ranges from air superiority and precision engagement to humanitarian relief and the dignified transfer of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The U.S. Air Force Academy is the largest supplier of operations research analysts in the Air Force. The operations research program is designed specifically to graduate officers capable of tackling compelling problems now!

Lt. Col. Jesse Pietz (jesse.a.pietz.mil@mail.mil) is an operations research analyst at the United States Air Force Studies, Analyses and Assessments Directorate at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and formerly an associate professor in the Department of Management at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Capt. Drew Ives (drew.ives.1@us.af.mil) is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics and Geosciences at the Academy.

Capt. Mark Williams (mark.williams.88@us.af.mil), the lead author on this article, is an instructor in the Department of Computer Science at the Academy.