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

See the Henry Ford Museum’s usage of the term “hack.”

Spring 2022 Challenges

      Massachusetts National Guard logo               

1. Talk Data to Me – The North Carolina National Guard recruiting and retention leaders need an effective process for analyzing recorded data in order to increase retention and maintain expertise within the force.

2. Next Generation Tracking and Response – The Massachusetts National Guard key leaders and support staff need improved emergency response coordination between agencies and increased visibility into asset/inventory management and tracking in order to avoid duplicative efforts.

3. Join the Club! – Increase and sustain the overall engagement of soldiers and their families in Soldier Family Readiness Group (SFRG) activities at Fort Bragg.

4. Onboarding Obstacles – The 82nd Airborne Division needs a way to streamline its onboarding process in order to improve paratrooper training and leverage new technologies.

5. Civil Affairs Integration – Army Pacific commanders need a holistic understanding of the civil societies they are protecting in order to improve operational decision-making.

6. Global Decisions Modeling – The Joint Force Development Directorate (J7) needs a way to model potential decision-making outcomes in order to define the best operational strategy.

7. Insurance Pains – Health administrators need an efficient process to collect information to appropriately bill third-party insurance companies in order to reduce wasted person-hours.

Spring 2021 Class


In the spring of 2021, JMU X-Labs hosted its fifth H4D class where transdisciplinary student teams pursued solutions to the following challenges:

1. Exceptional Help for Exceptional Families – Military families with dependents with special needs need a better way to navigate healthcare and educational options within the Exceptional Family Member Program in order to plan for assignment changes and identify support programs.

2. Fort Bragg Leadership Development Program – Leadership training teams and military psychologists need to identify counter-productive leadership styles and intervene to stop them in order to improve all leaders’ engagement with their subordinates and peers. U.S. Army

3. Heavy Metal Contamination in the United States Army Reserve Command Facilities – Army Reserve Safety Officers need a way to quantify and catalog lead-contaminated facilities in order to provide appropriate safety guidance and mitigation measures to protect soldiers who are most at risk of exposure. U.S. Army Reserve

4. Office 365 Business Reporting ToolDefense Logistics Agency Program Managers need an overarching business unit reporting tool in order to increase visibility and efficiency of collaboration across business units.

5. Solving the Beast – The Joint Personnel Recovery Agency Personnel Recovery Education and Training Center needs to increase the efficiency of scheduling resources in order to meet Joint, Interagency, Intra-governmental, and Multinational requirements.

Spring 2020 Class


In the spring of 2020, JMU X-Labs hosts its fourth H4D class where transdisciplinary student teams pursue solutions to challenges based on the needs of client partners from the 11th Wing of the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Logistics Agency, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Department of State, and the Womack Army Medical Center.

1. Training long-term strength – Air Education and Training Command Staff in the 11th Wing of the U.S. Air Force need a comprehensive way to assess and achieve the long term health of service members in order to ensure the readiness of the force.
Watch their final presentation here: LongTermStrengthTraining

2. Patching cybersecurity vulnerabilities more efficiently – Cybersecurity analysts at the Defense Logistics Agency need an efficient and fast way to remediate open vulnerabilities in order to keep systems more secure and reduce the time spent on vulnerability management.
Watch their final presentation here: DigitalDefenseWorkflow

3. Transforming training data to improve relevance in machine learning – Soldiers in the battlefield need a way to quickly and accurately identify equipment in the lab so that they can better identify Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) threats. (Defense Threat Reduction Agency)
Watch their final presentation here: Team Pontem

4. Acquiring ‘approval to operate’ for IT systems – Managers need a more efficient accreditation process for Commercial Off the Shelf software and application products that balance security concerns and resources in order to reduce the time and effort required for acquiring ‘Approval to Operate’ certification. (U.S. Air Force)

5. Department of State global alignment – Develop a means by which the U.S. Department of State can strengthen its ability to align global strategy and priorities to resourcing.
Watch their final presentation here: GlobalAlignment

6. Anticipating disaster scenarios for state facilities – Synthesize data from satellites, local weather stations, climate models, and more to create an interactive visualization of U.S. Department of State facilities along projected disaster scenarios for 5, 10, 15, and 20 years out.

7. Show me your credentials – Healthcare provider supervisors and clinical rotation schedulers at Womack Army Medical Center need improved awareness of their clinical personnel’s skill sets in order to effectively use their expertise.
Watch their final presentation here: ShowMeYourCredentials

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.

Hacking for Defense

Class Websites

Become a Client Partner

  • Does your organization face local or global challenges in healthcare, education or security?
  • Are you aware of a technology that could transform your industry but you don’t have time to explore it?
  • Does your organization have long–range design problems that you don’t have the resources to solve yourself?
  • What if you could hire graduates who are ready to start working on your top needs from Day One?

Learn how to become a client partner

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.

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