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Unique Experience for Students in Intelligence Studies

By M. Karen Walker, InnoVision Communications

In the fall semester of 2013, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and Mercyhurst University launched a new partnership that gives students real-world experience in researching and briefing findings to NGA analysts and decision-makers.

Through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement initiated and managed by NGA’s InnoVision Directorate, students enrolled in the Tom Ridge School of Intelligence Studies and Information Science engage with NGA analysts during the capstone course of their undergraduate or graduate program.

Each semester, groups of students form teams to research a question posed and vetted by NGA for unclassified, open-source research. Near the end of the semester, students brief their findings to NGA decision-makers and members of the analyst corps at the NGA Campus East in Springfield, Virginia.

“The partnership with Mercyhurst gives us the ability to broaden the context for geospatial analysis,” said Ann Freelander, the NGA Analysis Directorate’s liaison to Mercyhurst.

Freelander said that the questions address issues that represent gaps in NGA analysts’ situational awareness and ability to project future trends in their regions of interest. Additionally, students research and develop briefings on issues that interest the intelligence and defense communities, but that do not require a current allocation of NGA’s analytic resources.

Previous student groups have conducted research to understand the geospatial aspects of cyber networks; the nature of global cyber security threats; human geography; factors contributing to state fragility and stability; and the interplay of energy, economy, and critical infrastructures in countries of the Middle East, West and Central Africa, East Asia, and Latin America.

The fall 2014 cohort of students worked on three questions regarding telecommunications infrastructure developments in North Africa, the impact of maritime resource issues on regional tensions in the East and South China Seas over the next five to 10 years, and the likelihood that Arctic and non-Arctic nations will meet their economic goals in the region within the next 10 years.

Kris Wheaton, J.D., Mercyhurst professor and capstone course lead, agrees with Freelander that better questions lead to better analysis.

“Our students conduct research for people who are in the business, asking questions the way they are really asked.

The questions have the ring of truthfulness, allowing me to create a realistic learning environment, and inspiring our students to think like professionals,” Wheaton said.

Students Deepen Their Appreciation for Geospatial Analysis

According to Wheaton, Mercyhurst students who earn their degree in intelligence studies obtain positions in a variety of agencies and private sector firms. But wherever they go, they can find ways to use their newly gained and freshly honed geospatial analysis skills.

The signing of the NGA Mercyhurst CRADA was well timed, inWheaton’s estimation.

“It has become increasingly clear, in the past five years, that students enter our program with an interest in geospatial data and new tools, taking on mapping projects as freshmen,” Wheaton said. “By the end of their four-year program, they understand that they cannot be an IC professional without an appreciation for geospatial analysis; it’s integral to the art and science of modern intelligence.”

Ana Barbic, a former student of Wheaton’s who is now a global threats analyst for Monsanto Company, described her fascination with maps and trying her hand with ArcGIS.

“The NGA assignment fueled that fire even more. I seek every opportunity to provide a geospatial analysis with my assessments because maps are a great way to make intelligence more accessible and interesting to decision-makers,” Barbic said.

The students also gain appreciation for the myriad ways in which geospatial intelligence can be applied. Current Mercyhurst student Alicia Stoklosa shared her excitement to learn that NGA and other IC agencies support humanitarian missions.

“I was fascinated by the way NGA used imagery analysis to provide timely and appropriate aid to those in need during the 2009 earthquake in Japan,” Stoklosa said.

With this increased awareness, Stoklosa said that she can combine her passion for the environment with her interest in intelligence analysis, widening her career development prospects.

NGA’s Questions Broaden Students’ Perspectives

Wheaton expressed appreciationfor NGA’s effort to provide a wide variety of questions. Mercyhurst students graduate the capstone course with a well-rounded skill set and knowledge base, Wheaton explained.

“We’re investing in a process of critical thinking, teaching students how to conduct and apply their analyses to a working body of knowledge,” Wheaton said.

Barbic likewise commented on the importance of a wider perspective and cross-training. Barbic and her teammates conducted a strategic assessment of the Venezuelan economy. With no prior experience in economic analysis and a portfolio of work concentrated in the Middle East-North Africa and Eastern Europe, Barbic undertook basic research on Latin American economies.

Barbic said that despite the steep learning curve at the beginning, she provided a fresh and alternative perspective to the estimates that her team produced. “One of my teammates had extensive experience in economics, and together, all five us were able to debate effectively on the topic and learn from each other,” Barbic said.

Barbic attributed her growing interest in economics to the capstone course.

“I was made acutely aware of how interconnected, both directly and indirectly, a nation’s economy is with other elements of the country,” she said.

The team tasked with researching resource competition in the South and East China seas found the scope of the question especially challenging.

“We were surprised by the wide range of subject matter that the NGA analysts wanted us to look at, under one overarching question. But after weeks of research and creating our knowledge base, we learned that many factors affect the outcomes of various situations,” said current Mercyhurst student Katelyn Bailey.

The question’s complexity required the team to give more than a simple yes-no answer to whether conflict would occur in the next five to 10 years.

“We have to know how every single indicator affects other indicators, and the many ways that a flag or trigger for conflict could play out,” Bailey said.

Gaining Experience as Leaders and Team Builders

Maximino Peiz, a current Mercyhurst student who completed the Strategic Intelligence capstone course in the fall 2014 term, said that the most important lessons involved character and leadership. Peiz described how the partnership with NGA provides an opportunity to display and refine the skills gained through earlier course work.

“This particular capstone course is centered more around managing people and responsibilities than learning more new methodologies,” Peiz said. “The most successful teams learned to work through differences in order to accomplish their assigned task. By helping each other out, we learned how to share roles and responsibilities,” Peiz said.