Robert W. Moorman rounds out his series on military university education with an examination of the US Navy and Coast Guard academies.

US military academies have in recent years enhanced their curriculum to help officers of tomorrow meet the emerging complexities of the world. Courses designed to produce better leaders must blend the required Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses with humanities, political science, cultural diversity, economics, and ethics, as well as foreign and domestic policy.

Among the service academies, there is a continuing discussion on how to produce adaptive and agile leaders, who are capable of critical thinking. This goal was created, in part, to address the increasingly complex and asymmetric environments in which military leaders – even junior ones – are expected to perform.

“We believe firmly that the knowledge provided by our core curriculum is the foundation on which the students are able to develop the critical and analytical reasoning skills,” said Vice Dean Daniel O’Sullivan (PhD), US Naval Academy (USNA).

There are evolutionary and practical reasons for expanding the academic plane on which these future military leaders must play.

“We live in a VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous,” said Capt. Kurt U. Colella, (PhD), Dean of Academics, US Coast Guard Academy (USCGA). “So the ability to think critically is an important aspect in the student’s intellectual and professional development.”

USNA engineering majors working on independent study projects. Image credit: Jonathan L. Correa/US Navy.

USNA Programs

With a foundation of STEM, the academic programs at USNA are varied to meet the highly technical needs of the Navy. Elements of problem solving, scientific inquiry and logical reasoning are embedded in the course work to help develop critical thinkers, explained O’Sullivan. These courses amount to 95 of the 140-credit program.

All midshipmen take courses in naval science, leadership, humanities, social sciences and STEM.

Sixty-five percent of the graduates have a STEM degree. Although the number of majors and electives has expanded over the years, “the curriculum has always been STEM-focused,” said O’Sullivan, who has a doctorate in Chemical Oceanography from the University of Rhode Island. Nevertheless, “Students have quite a bit of flexibility in selecting a major,” he added.

Two-thirds of the curriculum is considered core courses. Midshipmen may choose one-third. In recent years, the Department of Defense has called for enhancing language studies. Arabic and Chinese are two of the 25 majors offered at USNA currently. Other majors include, Computer Science, Nuclear Engineering, Oceanography, Physics, Political Science, English, Quantitative Economics and Cyber Operations.

There have been two changes over the past five years in the area of cyber study. A Cyber Science course has been added and junior midshipmen can take a Cyber Engineering course.

The Annapolis, Maryland school also requires professional courses for all four years. Freshmen are required to take two introductory classes in naval sciences and leadership. Sophomores take navigation, naval engineering, ethics and moral reasoning. Juniors take five courses, which include strategy and tactics, naval engineering, weapons, naval electricity and electronics and a leadership course, plus 13 hours of drill that includes dress parades. Seniors take weapons, law and junior officer-related courses. They must attend a junior officer seminar and lead the brigade in 13 hours of drill, including dress parades.

Upon graduation, a Bachelor of Science degree is awarded to each midshipman regardless of major because of the technical content of the core curriculum.

Having a civilian and military mix of faculty is a practical goal of most service academies. Such a mix helps ensure that the future officers gain valuable out-of-and-in-box perspectives. “We compete to gain that mix,” said O’Sullivan.

For years, the USNA led the service academies in balancing the number of civilian and military faculty, a near 50/50 split, said O’Sullivan. But that is changing. The Air Force Academy has a current ratio of 64% (military) to 36% (civilian) instructors and is working toward a 60/40 split. The US Military Academy, West Point, moved toward a more balanced civilian and military instructor split with the passage of the 1992 Defense Authorization Act.

USNA graduates 1,000 officers per year on average. The projected class size of 2022 is 873 (72%) men and 338 (28%) women.

Newly minted Ensigns can seek additional education in nuclear science, medicine or other areas. The Academy sends around 70 midshipmen for study abroad per year.

Semester Study Abroad Programs are available for those languages taught at the Naval Academy, including Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Arabic. Midshipmen in their junior year or first semester seniors are eligible for these language programs. In the 2015-2016 academic year, 82 midshipmen studied languages abroad in 15 countries, according to the USNA. The newly added STEM programs have allowed USNA to send midshipmen to countries such as Israel, Turkey, Korea, Singapore and Sweden.

One study program is particularly noteworthy. Each spring, the USNA sends a group of midshipmen to participate in the Annual Military Academies Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) competition in San Remo, Italy. The simulation-based competition, hosted by the International Institute of Humanitarian Law, is designed to enable the future military leaders to see the bigger picture of what happens at the lower levels of command during a war.

Advanced academic coursework is available. Some academic standouts receive a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or a Marshall Scholarship for “intellectually distinguished young Americans” to study at any university in the United Kingdom. The scholarship is named after former Secretary of State George C. Marshall. Following post-graduate studies, the Ensigns join the fleet.

Like all US service academies, the Naval Academy pays 100% of tuition, room and board, plus all medical costs. It also provides a $1,087.00 monthly stipend to cover incidental costs. Each midshipman also receives $100 cash, which increases each year. According to the comptroller at the Air Force Academy, which MS&T profiled in Issue 6-2017, it cost $224,191 in FY2017 to educate each cadet over four years. In return for receiving such an expensive, taxpayer-paid education, each graduate agrees to serve five years of active duty.

The annual cost, as of 2018/19, of a four-year degree from Harvard University, which includes tuition, fees, room and board, is $67,580 without books, according to the Harvard College Griffin Financial Aid Office. The cost bumps up to $71,650 annually if books and personal expenses are added, or $286,600 for the degree, not counting any financial aid or scholarships.

O’Sullivan addressed the oft-heard narrative comparing the academic standards of Service academies with the top civilian colleges and universities.

“I am confident that we are providing an educational program for midshipmen that is on par with the best schools in the country,” said O’Sullivan.

One potential barometer of a school’s academic excellence is the number of scholars chosen. In late November 2017, Midshipman Senior Nate Bermel, 22, a political science and quantitative economics double major, was selected as the Naval Academy’s 51st Rhodes Scholar.

US Coast Guard Academy cadets during a cyber defense exercise. Image credit: NyxoLyno Cangemi/ USCG.
US Coast Guard Academy cadets during a cyber defense exercise. Image credit: NyxoLyno Cangemi/ USCG.

Academic Guardians

The major difference between the New London, Connecticut-based US Coast Guard Academy and the other Service academies’ curricula involves the law enforcement role of the US Coast Guard on the sea borders of any State, including Alaska and Hawaii.

As a result, USCGA offers courses in arctic policy, fisheries management, coastal resilience, petroleum and oil-spill science, structural design for extreme events, homeland security policy, disaster response, emergency management as well as irregular warfare and terrorism, which is taught at other Service academies.  The USCGA devotes significant classroom time to how laws and policies are developed.

“These courses are focused on and reflective of the Coast Guard’s nature, from a humanitarian, environmental and law enforcement perspective,” said Colella, who’s doctorate is in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Connecticut

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the role of the Coast Guard increased exponentially and so did the security-related courses at USCGA. How the Coast guard operates within the intra-agency environment with the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and US Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), as well as with local law enforcement and fire departments, is covered extensively in the classroom.

On the importance of cyber education to each student, Colella was emphatic: “It is critical, imperative, and essential…. not optional.”

For the first time, the USCGA Class of 2022 is being offered a cyber-systems major. This multi-disciplinary module includes technical, legal, economic and ethical overtones.

The core curriculum, which applies to every cadet, has humanities, professional, technical and physical components.

On the emphasis of humanities at the USCGA, Colella said it’s always been a part of the curriculum going back to the 1960s when engineering was the only major. Even then, embedded in the engineering major were humanities courses.

“We now have nine academic majors,” said Colella.

Among the courses for freshman are: cultural perspectives, African American, Hispanic and other culturally related courses. In its recently revised core curriculum, USCGA allowed freshman to choose which cultural perspective course they prefer to study.

Criminal justice, economics, morals and ethics (two different versions), and an introduction to computing course, which has a social science component, are also taught at USCGA. In addition, a senior-level, global perspectives course is offered. “It’s what we call our diversity and global perspectives [element] in our core curriculum,” said Colella.

To prepare to work in a VUCA world, USCGA added a critical-thinking component to the curriculum, but it is not narrowed to a single or series of courses. “If we emphasize critical thinking as part of the whole [academic] environment, rather than teach a specific course on it, we avoid the sense that a course gives you an inoculation,” said Colella. “You’ve taken this course. Thou art a critical thinker.”

He added: “It is just the opposite. The Academy focuses on critical thinking as part of a ‘shared learning outcome’”.

The core curriculum occupies a third of any academic major with greater emphasis placed on science, engineering and math, with a humanities component. Professional and physical combined modules make up the rest of the course load.

The professional module is intense and covers knowledge, skills and abilities that will be relevant to a sea-going Coast Guard officer. These courses cover coastal piloting, navigation, shipboard stability and analysis and how to be an effective leader as division officers

A 2014 USCGA internal study, with help from an outside consultant, sparked revision of the present core curriculum to address key threads in content areas. The eight different threads include reading, writing, communications, information literacy, ethics, multi-cultural and global perspective, diversity and leadership. Each of the threads has rubrics for evaluation purposes.

USCGA has exchange programs with other US Service academies. The Academy also has cooperative arrangements with Connecticut College, next door to USCGA, as well as the University of Alaska, Fairbanks campus on arctic study and policy. USCGA’s faculty of civilian and military professors includes a visiting professor for cyber study and a Foreign Service officer from the US State Department.

The USCG academy’s professional module covers knowledge, skills and abilities that will be relevant to a sea-going Coast Guard officer. Image credit: USCG Academy.
The USCG academy’s professional module covers knowledge, skills and abilities that will be relevant to a sea-going Coast Guard officer. Image credit: USCG Academy.

The Academy has educational arrangements with most US national laboratories, including Albuquerque-based Sandia National Labs, one of three National Nuclear Security Administration research and development laboratories; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory, part of the US Department of Defense’s research and development efforts; the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, a combat and intelligence support agency with ties to DOD and intelligence agencies; and the Virginia Commercial Spaceflight Authority, which owns and operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) and the MARS UMS [unmanned systems] Airfield. The Coast Guard will soon be tracking satellites for remote sensing in high latitudes. The Coast Guard will not be launching the “CubeSats,” but the Academy will have the ability “to design and integrate sensor modules, gather data and track them from Smith Hall, USCGA’s science building,” according to the Academy’s public affairs office.

While small compared to the other Service academies, the USCGA has a noteworthy honors program, with three Fulbright Scholars in Finland, Great Britain and the Republic of Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean that is 1,243 miles (2,000 kilometers) off the east coast of Africa.

The majority of the Coast Guard officers currently on duty come from the Academy. After graduation, most go to their units following 30 days of leave. Ninety-percent of the graduates go to sea as deck watch officers or engineers. Five percent go to flight school; this is the same school US Navy aviators attend in Pensacola, Florida. A small contingent is assigned to shore operations centers, or sectors.

Observations from educators with experience in civilian and military academia provide insights to the need for varied curriculum at all of the Service academies.

“I think the young military leaders today must have an understanding of the complexity of the world,” said Retired US Army Major General John Barnette (PhD), Associate Dean in the School of Leadership at the University of Charleston (UC). “They must have collaborative skills well beyond what one would expect from a young officer.”

Barnette, who teaches ethics, leadership development and executive decision-making on the doctoral level, has taught graduates from the various Service academies. At present, UC has two former Service academy graduates doing post-graduate work. One officer, who got his doctorate in executive leadership at UC and returned to obtain a masters in philosophy, will soon teach that course at West Point. Another student, a US Marine non-commissioned officer, will teach at USCGA.

Barnette said all Service academies should create shared leadership roles and on-job internships for cadets and midshipmen as another way of improving the evolving curriculum.

“As much as they could do to create scholar practitioners from the onset would be helpful,” he said. 

In 2018, the USNA ranked 21st among Liberal Arts Colleges, according to US News and World Report. The USCGA ranked second in Regional Colleges North and Number 1 in Top Public Schools. The US Military Academy and US Air Force Academy ranked Number 12 and 26 among national liberal arts colleges and number 3 in top public schools.

Whether the Naval Academy, the USCGA or the other academies profiled in this series measure up to the standards of the Ivy League schools is a subjective argument that misses the point. The Service academies have evolved by enhancing and modifying their course curricula to meet the complex challenges that future officers will face. The key is balancing core courses with humanities and various electives that might be found at civilian schools. This balance will hopefully make them better officers and better educated citizens. And that is a noteworthy goal. 

Originally published in Issue 5, 2018 of MS&T Magazine.