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University students help JSTARS innovate scheduling

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Vanessa Cox, chief of scheduling with the 116th Operations Support Squadron, Georgia Air National Guard, briefs Mercer University upperclassmen to explain scheduling processes of the E-8C Joint STARS at the Mercer campus in Macon, Ga., Oct. 8, 2019. The students from the computer science department worked on an innovation project to help reform the way JSTARS scheduling is run. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Nancy Goldberger.)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Vanessa Cox, chief of scheduling with the 116th Operations Support Squadron, Georgia Air National Guard, briefs Mercer University upperclassmen to explain scheduling processes of the E-8C Joint STARS at the Mercer campus in Macon, Ga., Oct. 8, 2019. The students from the computer science department worked on an innovation project to help reform the way JSTARS scheduling is run. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Nancy Goldberger.)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Scott, commander of the 116th Operations Support Squadron, Georgia Air National Guard, explains forms used on an E-8C Joint STARS to Mercer University upperclassmen at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., Oct. 15, 2019. The students from the computer science department worked on an innovation project to help reform the way JSTARS scheduling is run, and a behind-the-scenes look explained some current operating procedures. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Nancy Goldberger.)

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jason Scott, commander of the 116th Operations Support Squadron, Georgia Air National Guard, explains forms used on an E-8C Joint STARS to Mercer University upperclassmen at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., Oct. 15, 2019. The students from the computer science department worked on an innovation project to help reform the way JSTARS scheduling is run, and a behind-the-scenes look explained some current operating procedures. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Nancy Goldberger.)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- Team JSTARS, operators of the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, are teaming up with Mercer University’s computer science department in Macon to advance an antiquated software system.

The goal is to make the multiple databases the unit uses for scheduling missions and flying operations seamless, and to aggregate 15 years of scheduling data to analyze for improvements, according to Lt. Col. Vanessa Cox, the chief of scheduling with the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Operations Support Squadron.

“When we can schedule more effectively, we train more effectively,” Cox said. “We need long-term data in one coherent place to do that.”

During the process, Cox made several trips to the university to meet with upper-level students and explained how the JSTARS scheduling section works. The computer science class also toured JSTARS.

“All of our needs are based on how we operate, and it’s difficult to explain it to people outside the organization,” Cox said. “It’s a whole different world.”

The process allowed military members to present their mission, translating military jargon to civilian terms, and enhance interagency cooperation. This skill is key to domestic and international operations for Team JSTARS as they provide joint airborne command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability to combatant commanders worldwide.

By the end of the semester, Cox expects to see demonstration products, which the unit can take to a contractor to build a fully operational version in line with cybersecurity and other federal requirements.

The students, in turn, will use this as their capstone project and provide the community with better-prepared technologists.

“It’s very beneficial for my students to see a real-world problem they can help with” said Bob Allen, the chair of Mercer’s computer science department.

Allen ran a trial course in the spring to explore software support for Robins Air Force Base, working with Lt. Col. Jay Vizcarra, the Robins Spark Innovation chief with the 461st Air Control Wing. It was popular enough to prompt Allen to create a formal course for the fall.

Cox recognized the potential of the partnership based on her computer science background, so when the call went out for projects, she jumped on the chance.

As more opportunities to innovate and collaborate with the community come to light, it will take subject matter experts to identify opportunities for improvement.

“We need Airmen in their shops who know their processes to get up and say, ‘This isn’t working’ or ‘This could be better,’” said Cox. “We need an appetite for innovation, for change.”

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