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USCG Academy: Real-world Classrooms

The service is benefiting from its cadets and their real-world research and problem-solving.

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., is the smallest and second youngest of the nation’s four uniformed service academies. While not part of the Defense Department (DoD) – having moved to the Department Homeland Security (DHS) from the Transportation Department when DHS was founded – the Coast Guard’s significant military responsibilities, both domestically and abroad, to protect our national and homeland security interests, as well as a broad portfolio of other missions including law enforcement, search and rescue, and aids to navigation, lead to a complex Academy curriculum.

The result is both a traditional military education and a broad background in the interagency role cadets will play as officers. The Academy’s smaller size also allows greater opportunities for the senior class of cadets to take their final-year research projects beyond the academic to produce real-world concepts, even solutions, in response to subjects of concern posed by the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, and beyond.

Many projects taken on by the class of 2012 were studies presented at the Academy’s annual Cadet Research Symposium (CRS). The projects reflected the cadets’ academic majors – from civil engineering to marine environmental science to government.

“Do they get real-world opportunities, and are they frequent? Absolutely,” Dean of Academics Kurt J. Colella, Ph.D., a retired Coast Guard captain, said. “The multifaceted nature of the faculty brings a tremendous breadth of perspective to the cadet experience. With slightly more than half of the faculty being civilians, their experience in industry, higher education, and all walks of life is invaluable in giving the cadets a sense of, and appreciation for, the public that they will serve as officers. Combined with the military faculty experiences in the Coast Guard and interagency – Deepwater Horizon, Katrina, etc. – cadets get an incredibly diverse experience in the classroom.”

Coast Guard Academy Cadet Colin Schuster and Seaman Samuel Pankonien stand lookout for nearby ships as the CGC Resolute navigates rough seas and strong winds near the Deepwater Horizon response site July 6, 2010. The Resolute, homeported in St. Petersburg, Fla., was serving as a search and rescue guard to help support and protect people and ships involved in the response efforts. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Belson

During the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, 15 Academy faculty volunteers worked through the summer assisting in the evaluation of proposed solutions to mitigating the spill, protecting the environment, tracking the oil plume, etc.

“We have faculty and cadets very directly involved in these real-life events. In that respect, do they get real-world experience? Absolutely. And that experience is wrapped around many important operational and tactical aspects of virtually all of the Coast Guard’s missions,” he continued.

“There also are summer internships to cutters, [smallboat and air] stations, government labs, even Congress – all focused on their development as Coast Guard officers. So I think we do well in providing them with a unique combination of education and training that includes a lot of real-world application and focuses on their development as leaders.”

Colella started the Cadet Research Symposium in 2007 to bring undergraduate research and projects together with “real projects, real customers, real constraints, and a professional networking environment.

“A daylong conference focused on 70 to 100 cadet projects, it provides an environment that highlights the Academy as an intellectual resource for the Coast Guard and beyond,” he said. “It makes the cadets’ education very real and gives them a sense of what it takes to apply what they’ve learned in new and exciting ways. It sharpens their communications skills and makes them think critically, all in the context of serving as a part of something much bigger than themselves. It fosters a great sense of satisfaction, confidence, and humility, all key ingredients in developing leaders in each cadet.”

Cmdr. Charles A. “Chip” Hatfield, chair of the Academy’s civil engineering department, was an adviser to engineering majors who made presentations in the 2012 CRS. In 2011, he was faculty adviser to a cadet team who developed a new flare launch tube to be used during search and rescue missions from the HC-144A Ocean Sentry aircraft. It is a solution to space, access, and safety concerns and is already being produced for installation.

“Cadets [in all eight majors] have been conducting the symposium, and one goal is to highlight four years of work as a learning experience, combining everything they have learned at the Academy into a senior project,” he said. “Other academies and universities have similar events, but at the USCG Academy, our projects tie back to actual fleet problems.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...