GTRI Researcher Leads Nunn School Class Built on NATO Innovation Challenge
Posted February 7, 2022
NATO is calling upon university students around the world to provide solutions for some of its biggest challenges, and students in a new class in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs are answering.
The NATO Innovation Challenge — along with the class of the same name, INTA 4901/8901 — lets students tackle some of the biggest problems in international affairs today, while also preparing them for a career in international security.
“The Nunn School is uniquely placed at our current inflection point, where the lines between defense and commercial technologies have been blurred,” said course instructor Nicholas Nelson, a principal researcher at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). “International affairs students don’t need to be the technical experts on these technologies, but they need to be able to communicate with the engineers and computer scientists. That's where our future national security challenges lie.”
Students from across campus are eligible to take the course, which began with a pilot in Spring 2021, and is highly competitive: Nelson selected just one of every four applicants for the Fall 2021 semester, the start of the first full yearlong cycle of courses.
The course is designed in such a way that, in the fall, students propose solutions for problems facing NATO, building out each possible answer’s strategy, technology, and policy. In the spring, those who want to continue with their research can participate in an independent study class, where they will write a report on their fall projects and findings for NATO’s magazine, NATO Review.
This year, students split into two teams, one focused on the future of warfare related to artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomy, the other on solutions to key issues in space, particularly potential conflict. The students ended the semester by presenting their projects to the director of the NATO Innovation Hub, the AI and autonomy policy leader for NATO headquarters, and a representative from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
Many of those stakeholders requested the opportunity to participate in brainstorming sessions with this spring’s students.
NATO is interested in showcasing students’ work largely as part of their NATO 2030 initiative, which seeks to connect a young workforce to an organization of experienced public servants.
Nelson, joined GTRI after 15 years working in emerging and dual-use technologies, or those with defense and civil government uses. He developed the concept for the course while working with researchers at Johns Hopkins University on their security projects. Some of his colleagues reached out about expanding the NATO Innovation Challenge. Nelson had been looking for more ways to mentor students and figured the Challenge would be a perfect program to bring to the Nunn School.
Similar to the NATO Innovation Challenge, the School places a premium on international security and working with international organizations.
Nelson spends a large portion of the course helping students prepare for jobs in consulting, public service, at think tanks, and more. He held career-focused office hours with last fall’s students and coached several through interviews. Presenting to mid- to senior-level officials within NATO also teaches students the importance of client service and delivering on a specific request.
“This class is not just about the subject matter,” said Nelson. “It's also developing important technical skills. Understanding how to put a good PowerPoint deck together, how to do basic things in Excel when it comes to a real-life environment — those are the things that are going to differentiate you during entry-level job interviews.”
Since beginning the program in 2021, three students have received offers from consulting firms, another has received an internship with a D.C. think tank, and two more have advanced to final-round interviews with NATO.
Nelson hopes this class inspires a passion for working in international security, particularly for organizations such as NATO.
“We need more folks coming in from a variety of backgrounds who understand the day’s challenges and who are passionate about solving them,” he said.
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