For Sheamus Larkin and Isaac Egizi, Air Force Academy cadets with ambitious career goals, it’s no exaggeration to say the sky’s the limit. This summer they took a few steps closer toward the achievement of their goals by participating in hands-on research projects at Rutgers University.
Cadet First Class Larkin wants to become an Air Force operations research analyst, a rare flightless bird among airmen. Referred to as the “the Swiss Army knife” of Air Force logistics and operations, USAF analysts number only about 500 worldwide, with a single analyst occasionally assigned to a single base.
Cadet First Class Egizi, Larkin’s classmate at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO, has a more traditional ambition—to pilot an F-16 Fighting Falcon, the USAF’s most versatile combat aircraft, capable of moving at twice the speed of sound (Mach 2) 10 miles above earth.
Both cadets worked over the summer on real homeland security projects with the CCICADA research group at Rutgers University’s Piscataway campus.
They joined CCICADA’s annual Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, in which a number of hand-picked students from colleges and universities across the country are given meaningful research tasks that support the center’s applied-research projects. CCICADA runs the REU program with DIMACS, its sister organization at Rutgers.
“CCICADA’s REU program is part of a much larger REU program at the DIMACS Center, which is the largest in the country and takes students from all over the country, and it even includes the Czech Republic. By including CCICADA students in this large program, a large number of students are exposed to the role of mathematics, computer science, statistics, and operations research in addressing the homeland security problems we face,” said Rutgers Professor and CCICADA Education Director Midge Cozzens.
The cadets’ assignment was to help CCICADA build on its already extensive research in anti-terror security at the nation’s sports stadiums and other entertainment venues, a project that has engaged the center for more than six years. The focus of much of CCICADA’s stadium-security work has been on how to quickly and effectively inspect tens of thousands of fans as they go through the gates minutes before game time.
Under the mentorship of Professor Cozzens and the supervision of USAF Capt. Drew Ives, Larkin and Egizi were taught how to use game theory to determine what incentives might work best to encourage sports fans to arrive earlier for games and avoid the last-minute rush.
The cadets, both seniors at the Air Force Academy, also collected field data during entertainment events at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, measuring how long it took individual patrons get through WTMDs and secondary wand inspections. Although WTMDs are installed at most of the nation’s professional sports stadiums and arenas, researchers are still learning a great deal about how they work under real game-day conditions as opposed to laboratory conditions.
The field data collected by the cadets will help validate computer models developed by CCICADA to predict and manage inspection lines and other crowd movements and to establish parameters for randomization of inspection procedures.
“It’s pretty exciting work,” said Capt. Ives, Assistant Professor of Economics at the Air Force Academy. “There hasn’t been a meeting yet (with CCICADA researchers) where I would have said: ‘That’s an uninteresting project.’”
What Larkin and Egizi valued most about their experience was the chance to do real-world data research. Data research is, after all, the invisible underpinning of all modern military operations, both on the ground and in the air.
What surprised them most was how long it takes to formulate a problem, develop theories to solve the problem, and then collect the data to test outcomes.
“Previously in class, we were hand-fed data. Now we have to work for it,” said Larkin. “The actual data collection and problem formulation takes about half your time.”
Through an independent study course at the Academy, they will continue their game theory work when they return to Colorado, collecting and analyzing more field data to determine what incentives might work best to encourage fans to arrive early for games. Most sports fans arrive in the last 15 minutes, creating a rush of humanity that challenges stadium-security operations. The longer an inspection line, the greater its vulnerability to a physical attack. Long lines also increase the likelihood that security staff will compromise safety standards by speeding up the screening process.
The cadets are using field data collected by three major league baseball teams—the Cleveland Indians, Washington Nationals, and Colorado Rockies—to determine what incentives might work best: the allure of a ten-cent hot dog, a baseball cap or the chance to win a new car? Maybe all three! Selection of the best options hinges on a complex, strategic assessment of any one venue and its patrons.
Working under the supervision of Rutgers Professor Cozzens, Capt. Ives and the cadets plan to travel to Coors Field August 20 to collect survey data and arrival data during the MLB Rockies vs. Brewers game, where the Rockies will be giving away baseball caps to the first 15,000 patrons.
Egizi and Larkin also hope to develop and test crowd-management incentives for the NHL Avalanche hockey team at the Pepsi Center.
Asked about the value of the REU experience to their future careers, both had ready responses. Larkin said data research is a core discipline for AF operations analysts, who turn real-world data into actionable information to strengthen and improve Air Force operations.
As for Egizi, he will not be able to fly F-16s his entire career, but fortunately he also has a strong interest in economics, and he can envision the day when he, too, will become a professor.
“I want to be a pilot, but I plan to pursue a master’s degree in economics,” Egizi said. “The hands-on research I’m doing now is good exposure for me; 10-20 years down the road when I’m a teacher, I will be assisting students doing research.”
In addition to mentoring the cadets, Capt. Ives contributed to other CCICADA research projects during his stay at Rutgers, including: 1) how to assess and plan for attacks made simultaneously or sequentially in cyber and physical space, and 2) how to detect drones and the location of drone operators that threaten to disrupt a sporting or entertainment event.
He echoed the cadets’ sentiments when he said: “It’s been a great experience at CCICADA!”
“The experience was also great for CCICADA,” said CCICADA Director Fred Roberts. “Both the students and Capt. Ives were terrific partners for our research, quickly fitting in, eagerly getting involved in research projects, and contributing in important ways in a short time.”