Just as the National Military Family Month was in full swing in November, the Pearson Student Coding Contest received an entry from a U.S. Air Force (USAF) Academy cadet team made up mostly of computer science club members.
Not your typical students, we decided to take some time and chat with them and find out a little more about what motivates these bright students to code.
Not a lot of people know about the process to attend the USAF Academy, but it is an extremely competitive process. Each candidate must go through a rigorous selection process where they are vetted by academic and character standards. And they must receive a nomination to the Academy from a qualifying nominating entity, usually a U.S. Senator or State Representative.
Students who attend the USAF Academy are subject to a controlled and strict student lifestyle: their social calendars are controlled by their schooling. As upper class students, they are required to step up and mentor and guide younger cadets. When a typical college student might be sleeping in on a Saturday and making a decision about whether to attend a home football game, USAF Academy cadets are required to attend. They drill and eat meals in formation. They are required to learn combat athletics like ground fighting. Most learn to fly a plane. Swimming class is mandatory. For many, the USAF Academy is a challenge like they've never had before.
Cadet 2nd Class (equivalent to a 2nd year sophomore in other colleges) Jacob Cook, submitted an entry to the Pearson Student Coding Contest, with an idea to build an application using Pearson APIs. His team's idea included establishing on online resource where students could discover other teaching resources relevant to a course; particularly helpful to students who might require different teaching styles for subject mastery. Their team will go through a rigorous judging selection by Pearson and if they are selected, they will be invited to continue to code and demonstrate their app.
So who are these young people, who've not only dedicated their lives to the service of the U.S. Air Force while still in college, but who were also chosen to attend one of the most prestigious institutions in America? Turns out (at least for this group of young coders) that they're very much like other student coders. They like the challenge of coding and love problem solving.
I met with Cadet 2nd Class Nicholas Harron and Cadet 2nd Class Jacob Cook at the USAF Academy in Colorado Springs, CO for a quick tour and a chat. I wanted to find out more.
Cook, a native of Washington State, says he decided to attend the USAF Academy because he wanted to learn to fly and he knew that the Air Force Academy would not only offer him a guaranteed job, but also a job with variety. Most military members see several jobs, promotions and geographic duty stations in their careers. "I never even thought about programing until I entered a basic computer science class," Cook said, an Aeronautics Major. And he was hooked.
"I really enjoyed breaking down problems and never having to do it again. Programming is always about something different," he continued. "You determine a goal, then figure out how to do it. You can solve a problem with programming and never have to do it again. There are so many real world uses and challenges that can be solved with programming." Cook added.
Cook plans on being a pilot but feels that programming is a skill he'll have with him for life.
Harron feels the same way about programming. Unlike Cook, he wants to be a Cyber officer in the Air Force and he's well on his way. He originally wanted to fly A-10s but after he got to see the "cyber" side, he wanted to "be a brain" for the Air Force. "The Air Force Academy was for me, the cheapest way to satisfy my engineering goal," Harron said.
Harron, the son of two Air Force Non-commissioned Officers, picked up coding quickly and started teaching others. He learned Java, then Python.
"With computer science, I can start with nothing and build something. The tools are so available in today's society. Programming can give you a sense of purpose and value for sure. And it gives you a marketable skill," Harron said. He's entered ACM Hacking competitions and is a very active member and leader in the computer science club at the Academy, which includes about 20 cadets.
So, what's a typical day look like for Cook and Harron? At 6:30 a.m., cadets have accountability formation. Cook leads a freshman squadron (Squadron 23) in 23 pushups before breakfast. Then they have morning minutes where they talk about news events and recite knowledge, which they are expected to know verbatim. Again, not your typical college daily life. Shooting and compass classes are part of the curriculum.
So how do they spend their free time? Do they have free time? Yes, while freshman are not allowed to leave the campus during the week, upper classmen have it a little more relaxed. Some upper classmen even have cars on campus and lend them to underclassmen. A senior can even sign out overnight. As cadets become more experienced, they gain more responsibility and trust, as would be expected for young people training to defend our nation.
My tour of the campus was complete with a tour of the Colonel Richard Gimbel Aeronautical Library collection, a collection on the history of balloon flight.
And, I was treated to a real-life demonstration by Harron of an Enigma Machine which resides at the Academy. The machine is very much like the one featured in the Summer 2015 movie, The Imitation Game, the Alan Turing Story. The Enigma machine was used by the Germans during WWII to send "uncrackable" code. The Enigma machine was also used by our Allied forces to decode messages sent by the Germans. Turing cracked that "uncrackable" code.
As we close the month of November, we wish the best of luck to the USAF Academy team as they move on to the next judging phase of our contest. I think they're up for it.