Project Arc team works to make technical Airmen more operationally relevant

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – Science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, career fields are part of the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, commanders’ intent to lead, discover, develop and deliver science, technology and innovation for warfighters. And with the recent report on a Line of Effort 3.6 showing low numbers in STEM advanced degrees in its general officers, the laboratory hopes to grow those numbers through various programs.

image of engineer

Project Arc Engineer 2nd Lt. Jacob Geil takes a measurement on the ram air scoop fan assembly Sept. 22, 2022, as part of an initiative to embed engineers at operational wings to solve technical problems. As part of the Project Arc program, Geil and his teammate were stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, for six months to help develop, test and transition Airmen and commercial solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo / Staff Sgt. Christopher Tam)

Among them is the AFRL Regional Research Hub, which works with Purdue and Cornell universities to provide more science and engineering opportunities; various STEM events, which introduce the career fields to the younger generation; Edison Grants, which promote technical proficiency in military members to provide more science and technology opportunities; and Project Arc, which is still in its grass-roots stages, but is making an impact, even in its infancy.

In 2016, then 2nd Lt. Jason Goins, who is on the Project Arc council, found himself at a coffee shop with a group of coworkers discussing the reasons they joined the Air Force. Goins, who is now a major, mentioned that these reasons included a desire to serve their country and to use their technical degrees and skillsets, among others.

But as a military scientist, Goins asked himself, “What’s my role in the fight? How can I serve my country?”

Being technically minded, technically skilled and technically educated, Goins wanted to make more of an impact with his work.

Upon seeing a gap in the workforce, the group began brainstorming ways to allow Airmen to use their craft in a more meaningful way.

“We have so many people who are technically talented who are getting out because they feel like they’re not being used or implemented correctly, or not doing the things they signed up to serve,” Goins said. “And there’s got to be a way that we can fix this and also provide value to the operator.”

Thus began the makings of Project Arc, with the goal of making technical Airmen more operationally relevant. And by 2020, the team was turning their coffee shop wish list talk into a reality.

Volunteers needed

Goins said the team began Project Arc in their spare time.

“This is us [working] in our spare time on nights and weekends — making this work,” Goins said.

Their hard work began to pay off as more people volunteered. The project found a “place to call home” under Air Force Chief Scientist Dr. Victoria Coleman and Col. Mario Serna Jr., deputy director of innovation and technology integration, Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office-Field Support Unit.

“Dr. Coleman really gave us her top-level support, and the name recognition we needed to make this program a reality,” Goins said.

“We continue to receive senior leader mentorship and executive support from the Chief Scientist’s office, Gen. Duke Richardson [AFMC/CC], the AFRL Chief Technology Office and the CSAF Strategic Studies Group,” Goins said. “The group has also received funding from the latter two.”

The core team at Project Arc has expanded with the help and support of various AFRL units such as Small Business Office, AFWERX, ACT-3, and the 711th Human Performance Wing.

As the team began to grow and put things into action, they found locations that fit the needs of the program. Today, the team has 13 locations, some of which include Hawaii, Guam, California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and North Dakota.

The team picked locations based on leadership support for change and the infrastructure and facilities to support engineers on base.

“So, we started with about eight beta sites, and we ran this as an experiment,” he added. “And that fit in really well with the goals of the Edison Grant.”

Still using an all-volunteer force, the team was working to build the pipeline to have technically proficient Airmen develop into operational assets.

image of engineer welding

Project Arc Engineer 1st Lt. Andrew Foor welds together supporting parts for the hardening of a low-cost threat emitter Oct. 18, 2022, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. Foor, an electrical engineer by trade, worked with his teammate to help Luke Air Force Base modernize its ranges with emerging, high-impact technologies. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Engineering and technical experts

Capt. Garrett Custons, Project Arc international strategy lead, AFWERX, said Goins’ focus was on the engineering career fields, but he viewed things from an overarching technical standpoint.

“We have a lot of very technically minded Airmen who I think are being underutilized,” he said. “Maybe [an Airman is] a plumber, but they’re really good at coding for their maintainer who’s really good with drones.”

The Air Force manages thousands of people, and Custons said he realized many times Airmen are treated like a number, so it was important to find those who can make a difference.

“A lot of what we see are the people closest to the problem in the Air Force are furthest from the solution,” he said. “And just because you’re closest to the problem doesn’t mean you have the technical skill set to get the job done or develop a solution.”

Custons said Project Arc allowed them to begin pairing the people with the passion — who are also close to the problem — with technical experts who can solve that problem.

“So that’s where Jason [Goins] and I synced up,” Custons said. “And fortunately, I had access to funding that was a little bit flexible.”

The team began looking at locations and budgets to make the idea come to fruition.

Program interest, application

After securing funding, the team began looking at how to draw in the people with the same passion and technical ability to support developing solutions in the field.

“We’re bridging that gap between operators and engineers,” said Maj. Nathaniel Opie, Project Arc council, with Blue Horizons. “We just want to work side-by-side with each other — shoulder to shoulder. It’s been fun and we really believe that this is not just something where we can have guys do low level type of tactical things, but in a strategic fight, we can make the difference.”

The Project Arc team hopes to make a huge impact with the Airmen who complete it, said Opie, and Goins had an idea of who to look for.

“Anybody who has the willingness to get after this with us and put blood, sweat and tears behind it,” Goins said.

The team’s rotations include about 15 people traveling to a temporary location for a six-month period. Having completed two rounds, or cohorts, Goins calls them; the team is now on their third cohort. The Project Arc team conducts a demanding application process to ensure they receive people with the desire to see this project grow.

“We focus on people who are technically skilled but also have integrity, perseverance, dedication and are not focused on recognition but focused on getting the job done,” Goins said. “We focus on that for selecting people and we have a lot of success with selecting people with that type of mindset.”

The process to apply is a lengthy one that ensures everyone has the same opportunity to apply, Goins said.

“The process is very, very rigorous,” Opie said. “From interviewing and down to selection. We just had 199 folks who we just down selected to 50, and then we did another down select to 30.”

From there, the remaining people will begin the interview process.

Unfortunately, the team does not have set school dates, as a larger schoolhouse might, said Opie.

“A lot of this has been through the restriction of funding,” Opie said.

So when it comes to applications, the team spreads the word for interested parties to apply through MyPers, which is an Air Force platform for communication with personnel, he added.

For the third cohort Senior Master Sgt. Joseph King, Project Arc Council, decided to open the application to all enlisted Air Force specialties. Previously the announcement was open to limited career fields.

This time they really wanted to see what talent was out there, King added.

“Having a STEM degree is not a prerequisite for the program but it certainly helps, 36 of our enlisted applicants had a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field and a further 10 had a master’s degree,” said King. “We ended up selecting nine enlisted Airmen, four with bachelor’s and two with masters.

Because of the vast amount of interest and applications, the team is working to find a more deliberate, structured process, said Goins. But for now, he said the team is always accepting volunteers.

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Project Arc Engineer 1st Lt. Kevin Tran tests an early prototype of a corrosion prevention system for space launch infrastructure Sept. 21, 2022, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, Florida. Tran and his teammate were stationed at Cape Canaveral with a mission to test and integrate technologies that will enable assured access to space for the 45th Space Launch Delta. The corrosion prevention tool would save $300K a year at Space Launch delta alone and is currently in the Spark Tank quarterfinals.

What happens next?

After selection, the students arrive at their temporary duty station, connect with experts and begin problem solving alongside the operators, Goins said.

“We connect them with the other members who are going to grow with them,” Goins added. “So they realize they’re not just on their own. They’re part of a team. But the key is they’re sitting side-by-side with the folks, and they have mentorship support.”

Among the many locations, previous groups were able to do their training in Hawaii and Florida, learning with others at places such as Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Even after the six-month tour ends, many return to the headquarters section, Goins said. Some return to assist and mentor with the next round.

“Through connections they’ve made at Project Arc, several have been outplaced in innovation programs,” Goins said.

Many of the graduates have remained a part of the program providing surge support, Goins said, and others are still in the network.

With overwhelming interest in the program, the team is diligently working on ways to make these six-month rotations part of a normal assignment cycle, Opie said. And while the team is still working out the finer details for the future of these graduates, Opie said they can always help with future projects through volunteering.

“It’s six months, they get to do their thing, practice their skills, and go back,” Opie said. “But this is hopefully a lily pad that’s stepping us to the next section, the next iteration of full-time engineers with operators.”

As the team gathers more data, Custons said the team grows the program with operators, engineers, technical and non-technical talent. However, there are many critically thinking Airmen, he added.

“So we’re looking at building out a new career field for innovators,” Custons said. “Similar to those who speak Chinese or Russian — you offer skill set to the Air Force regardless of your career.”

The team collectively agreed there is more room to grow in the various career fields with the numerous locations available.

Project Arc does not fall under AFRL; however, it does partner with many areas of the laboratory. The support from AFRL across the different technical directorates has been vast, Goins said, and the partnerships have allowed the team to place people in areas where they are better equipped to use their skill set and be more of an asset to the Air Force.

“We have partnered with ACT-3 and its subdivision (AACO for example), the 711-HPW, [Center for Rapid Innovation], [Junior Force War Fighting Operations] inside [the Directorate of Materials and Manufacturing], [Directorate of Information] in Rome, and [Directorate of Munitions] in Eglin,” Goins said. “We also receive executive sponsorship from AFRL [Chief Technology Office].”

For those looking to be on the next cohort, the Project Arc team recommends sending an email to: [email protected].