Mercer University students help Team JSTARS with innovative approach to scheduling frustrations

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. Nancy Goldberger
  • 116th Air Control Wing

Team JSTARS, the sole operators of the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, recently teamed up with Mercer University’s computer science department in Macon to advance an antiquated software system during the fall 2019 semester.


The vision for the project is to make the multiple databases the unit uses for scheduling missions and flying operations a seamless system, and aggregate 15 years of scheduling data to analyze for improvements, according to Lt. Col. Vanessa Cox, the chief of scheduling with the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Operations Support Squadron.


“When we can schedule more effectively, we train more effectively,” Cox said. “We need long-term data in one coherent place to do that.” 


During the process, Cox made several trips to the university to meet with upperclassmen and explained in unclassified terms how the JSTARS scheduling section does business. The computer science class also took a tour of JSTARS so students could step into crew members’ boots as they developed tools to best meet the troops’ needs.


“All of our needs are based on how we operate, and it’s difficult to explain it to people outside the organization,” Cox said. “It’s a whole different world.”


The process allowed military members to present their mission, translating military jargon to civilian terms, and enhance interagency cooperation. This skill is key to domestic and international operations for Team JSTARS as they provide manned joint airborne command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability to combatant commanders worldwide.


By the end of the semester, Cox expects they’ll see demonstration products, which the unit can take to a contractor to build a fully-operational version in line with cybersecurity and other federal requirements. 


The students, in turn, will use this as their capstone project and provide the community with better-prepared technologists. 


“It’s very beneficial for my students to see a real-world problem they can help with” said Dr. Bob Allen, the chair of Mercer’s computer science department.


Allen ran a trial course in the spring of 2019 to explore software support for Robins Air Force Base, working with Lt. Col. Jay Vizcarra, the Robins Spark Innovation chief with the 461st Air Control Wing. It gained enough interest to prompt Allen to create a formal course for the fall. 


Cox recognized the potential of the partnership based on her own computer science background, so when the call went out for projects, she jumped on the chance.


As more opportunities to innovate and collaborate with the community come to light, it will take subject matter experts to identify opportunities for improvement.


“We need Airmen in their shops who know their processes to get up and say, ‘This isn’t working’ or ‘This could be better,’” said Cox. “We need an appetite for innovation, for change.”