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How USF’s Institute of Applied Engineering is using its $85-million government contract

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Dr. Robert Bishop is dean of the USF Institute of Applied Engineering. Photo: USF.

Engineering students from the University of South Florida are seizing gaps in their industry’s student-to-professional pipeline one year after entering a contract with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

USF’s Institute of Applied Engineering signed onto the five-year contract worth up to $85 million with SOCOM in February 2020, and have since created a pipeline for students to find careers, as well as develop a portfolio of innovative projects co-owned by the U.S. government.

Dr. Robert Bishop, dean of the engineering institute, noted that the amount his colleagues and students have achieved in one year matches their motto of “seeking truth at high velocity.”

One notable project Bishop explained is a collaborative effort between schools of engineering and medicine, where students are working to study and mitigate brain injuries. The goal is to find biomarkers, or indicators of head trauma like CTE, so it can be easily identified for soldiers who are subjected to these injuries in training and in the field.

Another SOCOM-funded project contributed three USF-engineered satellites to SpaceX’s first rideshare mission early in 2021.

SpaceX’s Transporter-1 carried the softball-sized satellites to the atmosphere, along with 140 others from various organizations. The USF project aims to create a space-based internet network, which is intended to improve communication between vessels in orbit.

Bishop says he developed the contract with SOCOM after noticing a disconnect between USF and the nearby MacDill Air Force base. While security protocol made it difficult for students to work on the base itself, Bishop had the idea to create a nonprofit that would be owned by USF and contracted by the government. 

Once SOCOM agreed to enter the contract, the nonprofit hired students from the Institute of Applied Engineering to get to work on more projects like satellite design and brain-injury research, as well as other classified tasks co-owned by the Department of Defense.

But according to Tim Baxter, executive director for programs & customer engagements, another major benefit of the contract is USF’s ability to connect students with careers, and to meet SOCOM’s demand for new technologies in a timely manner. 

Largely due to the funding, USF is now able to navigate the hurdles that often slow down the supply chain for people and projects, Baxter said.

“We’re trying to do things a little differently than maybe in a traditional sense – rapidly responding,” Baxter explained. “I like to say we have a network in place, so that when the customer has a requirement, we’ve already got the networks and the lines of communication already established.”

Baxter also noted that collaboration between universities has allowed USF to diversify its student engineers, which gives them a broader range of disciplines and innovations to contribute to the program.

“It’s across the gamut, right, whether it’s physics, video production, communications or marketing … and then all kinds of engineering disciplines,” he said.

Looking ahead, Bishop thinks his program has the ability to push Tampa Bay towards becoming another hub for technology and innovation. “I spent 20 years in Austin and watched that tech ecosystem form … (that’s) one of the things I want to happen here in Tampa Bay,” he said.

 

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