Hacking* for Defense

Hacking for Defense (H4D) is an education initiative that applies design thinking and the Lean Startup model to solve real and complex problems in the defense and intelligence communities. To do this, transdisciplinary student teams interview dozens of users and experts every week and constantly prototype solutions.

Designed by Stanford University, 20 universities across the U.S. are now using the H4D program, including Georgia Tech and Georgetown UniversityJMU is the first institution to exclusively offer the class to undergraduate students.

*Hack – to improvise effectively; to take things apart and repurpose them to solve problems or create new products

Spring 2019 Class



In the spring of 2019, JMU X-Labs will host its third H4D class where transdisciplinary student teams will have the opportunity to pursue solutions to challenges based on the needs of client partners from the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine CorpsDefense Acquisition University, Sandia National Laboratories, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, and the MITRE Corporation.

1. Improve training to maximize learning and performanceArmy and civilian trainers require a means to rapidly take findings from the U.S. Army Research Lab and other labs in order to implement and integrate them into training programs, which may include augmentations that utilize immersive virtual reality.

2. Incentivize infantry service – Army and Marine representatives in the Close Combat Lethality Task Force need a way to illustrate the value of service as an infantryman in order to incentivize the best candidates for military service to seek assignment to infantry jobs.

3. Create a leaner, meaner defense acquisition team – Defense Acquisition University program managers need a way to incentivize team member participation in order to optimize productivity and minimize the time spent in the acquisition process.

4. Enable transparency in humanitarian aid delivery – The systems analysis group of Sandia National Laboratories needs a transparent and secure process to track humanitarian aid deliveries for local communities in Somalia.

5. Develop standards for universities to secure unclassified Innovative research – The MITRE Corporation is partnering with JMU X-Labs to define and publish standards for universities to secure innovation research performed in their colleges and labs. The purpose for establishing standards is to prevent exploitation and theft of proprietary information and innovations.

Spring 2018 Class


In the spring of 2018, JMU X-Labs hosted its second H4D class where 25 students from eight majors pursued the following solutions based on the needs of client partners from the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of State:

1. Develop a faster way to log flight records – Students are developing a mobile application for aircraft commanders, pilots, and loadmasters to record necessary information while in transit to replace the existing excessive paperwork process.

2. Track recalled items – This team needs to develop a way for equipment specialists at every military installation to track the location of every FDA-approved medical device in order to allow the U.S. Army to speedily recall devices.

3. Track passengers and carry on bags – These students are working on ways to identify and track individuals and their carry-on items in order to make the airport security screening process safer and faster for passengers.

4. Prevent human trafficking – This team has been challenged to build a way for law enforcement agencies (in nations where forced labor takes place) to expose bad recruitment practices, illegal contracts, and front companies in order to increase scrutiny of companies that may hire forced labor.

Undergraduate Class Founder

In March 2016, intelligence analysis major Jack O’Neill heard about Hacking for Defense at a talk given by serial-entrepreneur Steve Blank at Stanford University. After the talk, Jack spoke with Mr. Blank and followed up with him to attend the H4D® Educators & Sponsors Course with JMU X-Labs faculty. Six months later, the JMU team traveled to Stanford University for in-depth training on the H4D program with its focus on project management, innovation, and solving real world issues.

In the spring of 2017, Jack’s team launched the first undergraduate H4D program in the nation at JMU X-Labs. The project has received nationwide media attention, and the class has garnered significant praise for the work accomplished by its undergraduate students. To date, H4D faculty and students have come from departments as wide-ranging as biology, business, engineering, nursing, and writing studies. Subsequently, the success of this pilot course led to all of our other “Hacking for” courses.

Spring 2019

ENGR 498, POSC 361
Hacking for Defense
Th 5:30-8:00pm
Lakeview Hall 1104

Class Websites

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