Update: Newly available information about the selection board has been added.
WASHINGTON — Air Education and Training Command is looking for new ideas on how to transform the way it trains the next generation of airmen — with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money is on the line.
The winners of the second annual iChallenge competition will be announced in San Antonio, Texas, on May 24, during the ForceCon conference.
The person or team who wins the top prize will receive $225,000 to be used as seed money to further develop the top idea. Two runners-up will each take a $125,000 prize.
In a May 11 interview, Chris Adams, AETC’s innovation advancement division chief, said the command hopes the contest will spark airmen’s interest in innovating new ways to train personnel, uncover those ideas, and get the innovators the necessary resources to make their ideas a reality and get them into airmen’s hands.
The iChallenge contest not only gets innovative airmen in front of command leadership, Adams said, but it also connects them with one another, industry officials, academic organizations and funding sources so they can further exchange ideas. This will be the first time representatives from industry and academia will hear the iChallenge pitches.
“One thing that we’re doing this year is sharing what our pitches are so we can help solve our force development gaps and challenges and really accelerate change like [Chief of Staff] Gen. [CQ] Brown has tasked us all to do,” Lt. Col. CJ Hale, chief of the rapid deployment office at AETC, said in the interview. “This will be a great opportunity for industry and academia to see where our airmen innovators’ minds are and how they’re trying to incorporate emerging technology to modernize and enhance the AETC mission.”
Competitors in this year’s iChallenge entered in one of four categories. One category focuses on training “multi-capable airmen,” a concept in which U.S. Air Force personnel are taught the basics of doing other jobs in addition to their own. This could become necessary in a wartime situation, in which airmen on isolated bases without reinforcements would have to perform several jobs to keep the unit functioning. Brown emphasized the importance of multi-capable airmen in his “Accelerate Change or Lose” strategy.
Another category is looking for ways to use augmented or virtual reality, as well as mixed or extended reality — technology meant to improve how the service trains its force. AETC has already used these concepts in programs such as Pilot Training Next, which used artificial intelligence and virtual reality to improve and quicken the process for training new pilots.
The other two categories include ideas for building and delivering customizable software applications, and for improving airmen and leaders’ soft skills, such as communication.
Hale said AETC is particularly interested in making training programs to create multi-capable airmen that are accessible, modern and customizable. The command also wants to create and update these training programs in-house by airmen, instead of contracting out and having to go back to vendors for updates.
Finding fresh and innovative ways to use technology, such as virtual and augmented reality, in training is crucial as the Air Force seeks new recruits who grew up as “digital natives,” Adams said.
Virtual reality allows complete immersion in a computer-generated environment, sometimes by using goggles, and augmented reality overlays virtual elements on top of the reality the user sees. As an example of augmented reality, Adams cited the game Pokémon Go, in which players use their smartphones to find and capture hidden creatures as they walk around.
“This allows us to actually meet our learners where they are,” Adams said. “They’ve been using this stuff all their lives. They’ve done Pokémon Go and all these other things, so this is very natural for them.”
And adopting these kind of immersive learning techniques gives students more control over how they learn, Adams said, since they can often keep learning at home and study at their own pace.
Each contestant has 10 minutes before the selection board, which will be led by Brig. Gen. Caroline Miller, who was until recently commander of AETC’s 502nd Air Base Wing at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas. That includes a three-minute pitch for their idea, followed by a seven-minute question-and-answer session with the judges.
The inaugural iChallenge competition last year, which was structured differently than this year’s contest, awarded first prizes to ideas in three different categories, including an award for an interactive cyber education program called Cyber Space Odyssey.
With $475,000 in total prize money offered this year, there is also much more money at stake than last year, in which the prizes totaled $300,000.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.