National security initiatives are making their way onto JMU’s campus through a new course.

Hacking 4 Defense was developed to give students the chance to work with the United States Department of Defense to create a prototype that will assist the security of the military. The course uses live stream videos and blog posts to engage students from a wide variety of majors. 

“Groups in the defense system are working to solve the same problems the students are,” Erica Lewis, a nursing professor at JMU, said. “They need fresh eyes and an unconventional approach to find these solutions. A diverse, unique group of students is [well-positioned] to do that.”

Lewis said the nursing branch of science is significant for H4D because nurses are particularly good at identifying key pain points and are able to use that in finding solutions that will ease the concern of national security. 

“This course allows students to become exposed to real-world problems and work towards creating innovative solutions at a rapid pace,” Jack O’Neill, a senior intelligence analysis major and student coordinator for the course said. 

Lakeview Hall, formerly known as WVPT studios, is home to the JMU X-Labs. X-Labs is a series of classes in which the university provides students the opportunity to get hands-on experience with new innovation. Many X-Lab courses require specific majors to participate. Last semester, JMU X-Labs students examined the use of lifesaving drones and created a product that can detect landmines.

Multidisciplinary student teams were presented with challenges currently faced by the United States Department of Defense. To tackle these problems, they used the “Lean Launchpad,” a methodology used to create successful start-up companies. This is a rigorous way to tackle complex problems and design solutions. It also helps the students outline how to find the solution that best fits the customer’s needs through trial and error. 

The military sponsor within the related field that the group decides to work with provides the students with information and gives them a short timeline to find a solution that works. Each group creates a different solution to aim for. One of the prototypes that a group is currently working toward is to train hawks to be able to take harmful drones out of the sky. 

Junior computer science major Bailey Swayne’s experience with drones has led him and his group to work on a product that will protect soldiers from hostile drones.

Swayne said one of the biggest challenges is doing the research and design process without the benefit of classified resources that the military and defense contractors have.

“Each team is challenged to complete at least 10 new interviews each week of the semester to better understand the challenge from the users’ perspective,” Keith Holland, an associate professor in the engineering department, said. 

Last fall, Swayne was in the drone class within X-Labs in which the sole focus was solving real-world problems. Some of these problems include finding solutions for alerting people in a humanitarian disaster, creating a digital overlay with detailed situational information and developing sensors to help soldiers better understand complex buildings and cave systems.

Swayne and his group created a drone that detects antipersonnel landmines and uses a pneumatic device to destroy them with a laser before they do harm. 

Entrepreneur and Stanford University faculty member Steve Blank, along with several colleagues, first created the H4D concept. O’Neill learned about the H4D course at Stanford and suggested bringing it to JMU.

“Students are really doing all of the heavy lifting,” Sean McCarthy, a writing, rhetoric and technical communication professor, said. “In a way, we are just there to support them.”

Another course offered at JMU through X-Labs similar to H4D is Interprofessional Innovations, which focuses on the medical side of problem solving.

“From the biology prospective, H4D is still medical innovation,” Ludwig said. “It is a different version of that class but that has not changed.”

The students and professors participating in H4D are seeing positive results. Other similar courses are to be offered in the fall, such as a Medical Innovations — for nursing, biology and engineering students — and a H4D course that is open to interprofessional students.

Other X-Labs courses include Fueled — a combination of biology’s approach to sustainable food and farm-to-table meals on campus incorporated with food truck technology. The X-Labs programs also offer a Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality course taught in conjunction with George Mason University’s Serious Game Institute, which was developed by JMU student Skylar Wolen. 

These courses develop practical, real-life skills for students of all disciplines.

“It will happen as it goes,” Lewis said. “That’s what makes this class so exciting.”


Contact Katelyn Merriman at

Katelyn is a junior media arts and design major concentrating in journalism and minoring in communication studies. In her down time she hangs out with her sisters and raises money for her favorite philanthropy, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.