Lights Out! Penn State Students and Researchers Face the Apocalypse

A lot of people think that scientists and researchers spend all their days and a lot of their nights toiling away in sterile, dimly lit labs, sequestered from students and the rest of the university community. Every once and a while, they may shout “Eureka!” to an unaware, but appreciative group of students and staff as they uncover the cure for a disease or add an extra letter to a really cool-looking math equation.

That’s not how research is done at Penn State. You’ll find research and teaching are tightly woven together in a positive feedback loop here. Research inspires lessons, which inspires students, which, in turn, inspires more research.

That’s especially helpful when you face an apocalypse.

Penn State IST Professor of Practice Col. Jake Graham is leading a group of students in his Security and Risk Analysis Capstone course (SRA 440W) through an exercise that is part emergency awareness exercise and part live action role-playing game. I might add that the only thing missing from this scenario that would make it a script for a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster would be a roving band of zombies. (Maybe next semester?)

“The purpose of the SRA Capstone course, is to apply the knowledge, and skills achieved across  the Security and Risk Analysis curriculum in a culminating analytic experience to address a set of complex and dynamic security and risk phenomena,” Graham said. “This is achieved in a team-based, scenario-driven exercise — the Analytic Decision Game, or ADG.”

According to Graham, the scenario for this semester’s project is slugged “Lights Out.” Here’s the background: A solar flare fries just about every electronic device. Beyond not being able to check out the sports scores on your smart phone, it also means you won’t be able to cook, heat, drive a car and do just about everything else you’ve become accustomed to doing with modern technology. To put it crudely, the students — who are divided up into three communities, each with certain advantages and weaknesses — have become instant Amish, whether they converted to the faith or not.

“The research topic for this semester deals with the characterization of cyber-space in the year 2025,” Graham added. “The companion ADG for this semester deals with life in a post-cyber society, where students acting in leadership roles guide their respective communities through a series of cascading problems.”

Graham, who served as a Marine helicopter pilot and spent time ferrying United States presidents around in Marine 1, said that for the students in the project, the scenario raises a lot of questions. Do they cooperate with other town leaders? Do they conquer the other towns? Can they mitigate some of the catastrophic effects? Can they learn new skills and abilities to cope with the problem?

In the next few posts, we’ll hear from some of the students as they take their Penn State training, knowledge, and Brains! Brains! Brains! into the apocalypse.

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