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How West Point is becoming a proving ground for technology

Joe Sohm | Visions of America | Getty Images

One of the nation's premier military academies may be an unusual place to find a technology start-up, especially one about 200 years in the making. However, that's exactly what's happening at West Point.

"We have been teaching military history since 1818," said West Point History Department Chair Col. Ty Seidule. Now, the school is doing it with a new twist.

"We had to have a sustainable model," for bringing military history fully into the 21st century, he added, "where at least some of the revenue will come back in and support the text going forward."

A digital revolution has altered the way today's students experience the two-semester requirement "History of the Military Art," thanks to a unique entrepreneurial venture between the United States Military Academy at West Point and Rowan Technology Solutions.

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For three semesters, 1,200 West Point cadets and 30 instructors have been, essentially, beta-testing a 71-chapter interactive e-book, featuring animated battle maps, data visualizations, and text integrated with photo and video material.

The goal of such an immersion experience for the class, dubbed "Mil Art," was to "keep the smell of gunpowder in the course," said Col. Seidule.

And that less-staid approach to teaching thousands of years of history and military strategy—some at West Point joke the class covers history "from Plato to NATO" —is an early hit. "There was a 46 percent increase in the percentage of A's over the five-year running average," said Col. Seidule.

The Art of War reinvented

Animated representations of each day of the Battle of Gettysburg, or 3-D models of a medieval castle stormed in the Hundred Years' War, "allow you to see how the commanders placed their troops, how they flanked and maneuvered against their enemies, " said West Point freshman Mary Liu. "It really does bring history to life."

It also gives a fresh perspective on waging armed conflict, as wars continue to rage in the Middle East.

"War is the most complex, chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous activity undertaken by humans," Col. Seidule continued. "We have to have the tools to help (future Army officers) understand that better. And that's what we've done with this course."

Initially conceived as a textbook that the university hoped to fund through contributions from alumni, the research, development and implementation of the digital content was kick started by a philanthropic contribution from West Point graduate, Vinnie Viola. Viola is the executive chairman of high-frequency trading firm Virtu Financial and the owner of the Florida Panthers NHL team.

He started Rowan Technology Solutions, which worked with West Point to turn an updated survey of military history into a new business venture.

"This initial investment was a few million dollars, centered around getting the best historians (and) understanding the technologies we needed to use," said Rowan Technology Solutions President Tim Strabbing.

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"We have a number of custom technologies that we have patents in for right now around the animated maps," Strabbing added. "It's a series of HTML widgets so the animated maps and the hot-spotted images will play on any type of device." Many of the drawings, photos and political cartoons in the textbook feature touch-and-go sensors that allow a reader to access further information about the image.

Though developed for Apple iBook platform, a 6-chapter consumer excerpt of "The West Point History of Civil War" is currently available for $29.99 that will work on any Apple, Android or Windows device.

West Point and Rowan also plan to develop interactive curriculum for other academic institutions. "One of the missions we have here at Rowan is to help the civil-military relations gap be filled and communicate more effectively between civilians and military," said Strabbing.

"We really want to get this content into the hands of the U.S. population," he said, calling it the "beauty and the challenge of the project."

Technology as the new classics

Col. Seidule says an entrepreneurial venture maximizing emerging technology is nothing new to West Point's legacy of hands-on tactile training, which dates back to the early years of the 19th century.

"If you went to Yale or Harvard, they would be teaching the classics: Greek, Latin," he said. "And here, we were a practical school for engineering, for math, for sciences. West Point became the home of engineers that mapped the West. Some of our first astronauts were West Point graduates."

Now, the life and death experience of the armed forces can align a little more closely with consumer behavior in a world full of mobile devices, and increasingly interactive technology.

"War is complex. And we, as an American people, are not militaristic," said Col. Seidule. " But we go to war a lot. Citizens need to understand war to be good citizens."

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