Edwards’ 775th TS tackles ‘Death by PowerPoint’, innovates improved training regimen

  • Published
  • By Grady Fontana
  • 412th Test Wing

Sure, Microsoft’s PowerPoint software still dominates the market and is the most likely source for presenting training material; and millions of presentations are made each day using the software.

Unfortunately, the phrase "Death by PowerPoint" has also become part of our lexicon.

The YourDictionary website defines Death by PowerPoint as “the boredom of a dull PowerPoint presentation, normally consisting of simple bulleted lists and conventional graphics.”

According to whatis.com, key contributors to Death by PowerPoint include confusing graphics, slides with too much text and presenters whose idea of a good presentation is to read 40 slides out loud.

While “Death” might be an extreme term to describe the numbing feeling one experiences from slide after slide of data, Edward Tufte, author of The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, discussed a case when the use of PowerPoint bore some responsibility in the deaths of the crew of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, in the section titled PowerPoint Does Rocket Science—and Better Techniques for Technical Reports.

In the context of training; however, Death by PowerPoint refers to the effects on the cognitive ability of students to retain information from a presentation.

The Electro-optics and Infrared (EO/IR) Flight of the 775th Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California, is a unit of about 25 engineers that conducts testing of airborne military EO/IR systems and lasers. They are part of the 412th Test Engineering Group in the 412th Test Wing, also at Edwards AFB.

As you can imagine, EO/IR is a complex discipline.

The EO/IR training is a lengthy process and can take more than five years for a non-optics-background engineer to come up to speed.

Even engineers with formal EO/IR educational background require specialized training in military applications and IR.

“They don’t teach everything in school…in-house EO/IR training is crucial,” said Karapet Gyurjyan, acting flight chief, EO/IR Flight, 775th TS. “On top of the education requirements of becoming an engineer, you have to know all of the military applications, and you’ve got to have flight-test experience.”

The responsibility of providing in-house training for these engineers fell on the organization. However, in-house training had limitations and needed improvements.

“In the past we just had PowerPoint presentations; you can talk through it, but it's kind of hard to explain these concepts because it just goes over people's head,” said Gyurjyan. “You can show them a lot of math plots and concepts on PowerPoint, but we wanted to make something different. Instead of talking about a system, let’s show them.”

In true Edwards AFB and Air Force mantra of “Accelerate Change or Lose,” the EO/IR team turned to SparkEd innovation team for funding assistance.

The goal of this innovation was to improve the in-house EO/IR training approach, and expedite and enhance the learning process.

Ron Hardgrove, flight chief, EO/IR Flight, 775th TS, developed the idea of purchasing the equipment that would serve as training aids for the students, which would help the training resonate more effectively.

Instead of explaining concepts and techniques through the aid of PowerPoint, the instructors would have the benefit of demonstrating these lessons and allowing students to apply hands-on learning processes.

The innovation project was pitched to the SparkEd – 412th TW Innovation Team in mid-summer of 2020 and shortly after was approved for funding. The EO/IR began purchasing items by late fall.

“Traditional government funding methods are not available for innovation seed money,” said Britney Reed, continuous process improvement manager, 412th TW. “That is what is unique about our process. Innovation is about risk tasking to find something sustainable, transformative and disruptive. Once the proof-of-concept is proven, then the innovation can be scaled with a functional program office. This is the ultimate goal.”

The long list of items purchased included various camera equipment and lenses, filters, night vision goggles, telescopes, lasers, lights and infrared devices.

When a previous training session might display in PowerPoint the characteristics and effects of lenses in a telescope and a camera, the new period-of-instruction would allow for students to hold these cameras and look through lenses to witness the effects of the different types and shapes of lenses.

“For example, you can change the iris of a camera to see how the image changes and how that affects your resolution and your focusing ability,” said Kevin Meyer, intern engineer at 775th TS. These concepts are more difficult to communicate in Word or PowerPoint.

The benefits of this innovation are far reaching and exponential. Not only will the EO/IR team be able to accelerate the proficiency of its workforce, the lessons will resonate better with students and the training team will be able to offer these classes to a wider band of customers within the test enterprise.

“Beneficiaries of this innovation are not just from our flight,” said Gyurjyan. “In addition to the EO/IR team, the Radar, Electronic Warfare, Weapons, and Human Systems Integration disciplines at Edwards would benefit from this training as well. In addition, we're going to do road shows. We gave the training at Nellis AFB a couple of times, because there was demand over there.”

According to Gyurjyan, Nellis incorporated a new system and needed their workforce trained to understand how to test that system.

“They asked us to go over (to Nellis) and provide the training,” said Gyurjyan. “Our goal is to keep on doing this…to go around the country to different bases and teach this course and do the demonstrations for all of our students. Our goal is to provide training across the Air Force Test Center.”

The 775th TS pitched the training innovation twice to the SparkEd team – the official AFWERX-recognized Spark Cell for Edwards – after which the team agreed to fund the training items.

“We all have a passion for spreading the innovation mindset,” said Reed, who is a member of the 412th TW SparkEd Innovation Team. “Not only do we help inspire and resource the Airman innovator to think outside the box, but we help them get through the bureaucratic red tape. This inevitably speeds up the process and aids the idea through to implementation.”

AFWERX’s core mission is to improve Air Force capabilities by connecting innovators, simplifying technology transfer, and accelerating results by connecting diverse, innovative members from industry, academia, and government; creating capabilities options and prototype opportunities for the Air Force; facilitating streamlined acquisition processes; and fostering a culture of innovation in Airmen.

Each AFWERX Spark Cell operates semi-autonomously in pursuit of locally generated ideas and projects. Spark is a grassroots innovation program that empowers Airmen to bring tomorrow’s tools to the Warfighter today.