VMASC Celebrates Its First Decade

Executive Director Michael McGinnis Looks Back and to the Future

The summer of 2007 marks the 10th anniversary for Old Dominion University’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center and the one-year anniversary for Michael McGinnis as the center’s executive director.

VMASC also will have another reason to celebrate in 2007. Before the end of the year, the center will move to newly constructed quarters in the “Sim City” corner of northern Suffolk and western Portsmouth alongside a cluster of modeling and simulation facilities operated by the military and private industry.

With the new building, VMASC’s floor space will more than double. Research by the faculty of about 65 and a student population of about 100 will receive a boost from spacious laboratories and new, state-of-the-art instrumentation. Currently, VMASC academic training and project development serve as a catalyst for a $500-million-a-year modeling and simulation industry in Hampton Roads. VMASC projects include crowd modeling that helps to control potentially dangerous gatherings; roadway-traffic modeling that offers solutions to transportation snarls; infrastructure modeling that assists in recovery from man-made or natural disasters; and creation of sophisticated synthetic learning environments (SLEs) that use computer and video-gaming/virtual-world technologies for serious training.

McGinnis, who retired from the Army in 2006 as a brigadier general, spent the last seven years of a 29-year career as department head of systems engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

He talked about his first year at VMASC and the future of modeling and simulation in Hampton Roads in an interview with Quest early in 2007.

QUEST: How will you celebrate the 10th anniversary of Old Dominion’s modeling and simulation center?
MICHAEL McGINNIS: We’re planning three events. We will be 10 years old in July, and we have the kickoff then, unveiling a 10-year history we are preparing. Another event will be oriented around the opening of our building, probably in the fall of 2007. We’ll do an open house and we will invite people from the region and state who have had a hand in it. Then, in the spring of 2008, we will have a final event celebrating 10 years of our graduate academic program, and this will coincide with our annual Student Capstone Conference in April.

Q: Can you tell us more about the history you are compiling?
A: We’ll have the 10-year-history of VMASC. It will be bound and we may make it available on CD as well. It will be a coffee table kind of publication that will include interviews with past directors, such as Bowen Loftin and Roland Mielke. We’ll have interviews with other key personnel and key players in the modeling and simulation industry in this area. We will acknowledge support we have gotten from elected officials such as our former governor, Mark Warner, and more recently from Delegate John Cosgrove, who proposed and shepherded through the legislation to create a Modeling and Simulation Council for the state of Virginia that will include members of the House of Delegates and the state Senate, as well as key members from industry. The legislation designates by name the executive director of VMASC as a member of that council. The council will report out to the governor three or four times a year. So this is an important step forward that positions Virginia in unique ways to be a leader in modeling and simulation.

Q: This year also will be remembered for new agreements that strengthen the ties between VMASC and both the Army War College and the Naval Postgraduate School. How will these agreements contribute to VMASC’s second decade?
A: We’re taking steps to get a new memorandum of understanding signed with the Army War College. We want the War College fellows program that we have here (under which an officer enrolled at the War College studies for a year as a fellow at VMASC) to be a much more prominent opportunity. Once that agreement is completed, we would like to open slots for other military officers, as well as for civilians. We hope to do this through the Defense Acquisition University and may do it also through the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS in Monterey, Calif.) and ODU have recently signed an institutional-level agreement to improve collaboration in research, in the sharing of instructional content and on dissertation committees, with opportunities for us to sit on theirs and them on ours. That came about as a result primarily of the efforts of Dick Whalen (ODU’s director of military activities) over the last five to seven years. We had a series of meetings that resulted in President Runte signing a memorandum with the provost of the NPS on the 12th of February. It is a huge partnership for us and a great step forward because it gives us an East Coast and a West Coast presence, and opens up many more research opportunities and student-sharing opportunities with NPS. Under this agreement, I sit on the board of the MOVES—Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation—curriculum there. They offer a graduate program in modeling and simulation that is headed by Professor Rudy Darken, and he sits on our board of advisers.

The first thing we’re going to do is develop a joint distance-learning program for modeling and simulation for which we share content and we supplement our distance-learning modeling and simulation program with their content, and they can do the same with ours. What that allows us to do is combine the collective body of knowledge that exists between our two programs and we can tailor what a student wants much better than we could in the past. NPS has certain areas of expertise that are different from ours, and we complement each other a great deal. Breadth and depth go way up in both of our programs. We have many Navy officers here in this, the largest naval base in the world, and what a great opportunity for these officers to be able to take courses from ODU in modeling and simulation in a program where we collaborate with the Naval Postgraduate School.

Q: You have been executive director of VMASC since June of 2006. How has the center changed under your leadership?
A: Last fall we had an off-site strategy session with the key scientists in VMASC. We brought in a few other people, as well. We got input from our board of advisers, from people on the industry side, and we talked with other faculty and the leadership of Old Dominion University. We also talked with our federal partners over at Joint Forces Command, and we recorded all of this. We asked ourselves if we are organized to grow into other areas and as a leader in modeling and simulation in Virginia.

What came out of that is a new organization. In the past, we were organized around a general manager and executive director, and everything funneled through them. We have now a much flatter organization and the power of the organization lies in the program areas we have created. We are selecting program directors for all areas, and they have taken ownership of those areas over the last six to eight months. More energy is being put into these areas—from education to research to business development to technology. We didn’t have that before because everyone was waiting to get their guidance from the general manager and executive director. Now they’re out there pushing their areas, and that has made a huge improvement in initiative.

Q: What are these program areas?
A: We have six programs. We have academic affairs, we have research and development. There is business development, and a program for technology and laboratories. We also have an engineering and technical services area, and one for analysis and visualization. (See accompanying roster for program directors.) Within R&D we have created a number of clusters, for example in medical and game-based learning. The medical cluster is headed up by one of our new hires, Stacie Ringleb, who came from the Mayo Clinic, and game-based learning/model and simulation games for education and training is headed up by Alicia Sanchez, who is a new hire from the University of Central Florida. In those cluster areas, if they take off and we’re able to hire people in them and we are able to get funding, we will elevate those to the level of their own program. So you see another point of light out there, another tremendous amount of energy being poured into these efforts.

Q: What impact will the new building have on VMASC?
A: If you look at the size of our building today, 26,000 square feet, it was not designed at all to be a center of technology and innovation. There’s no “skunk works” here. But my predecessors modified it and made it work. For the new building, we recognized that we would need large spaces that would be reconfigurable. Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law, they promise rapid changes in communications and computer technologies. You don’t want to hardwire everything in there. You want to be able to unplug the old and plug in the new as it comes available. Creating areas that have no walls is important to us. We don’t want to impede the flow of information and collaborative work. We have an 8,000-square-foot laboratory in the new building designed just for that. We have a 3,000-square-foot “skunk works” lab for experimenting with new visualization techniques from computer-aided virtual environments to new kinds of plasma screens that allow you to bring in multiple feeds and merge and synthesize the feeds from different locations. Total space in the new building will be about 60,000 square feet.

Q: VMASC has been described as a research facility that is helping to define the future of modeling and simulation. But the center also has had a more tightly drawn local mission, which is to spur economic growth in Hampton Roads and Virginia. Will you proceed along both paths during your second decade?
A: We have a state-mandated role to be an incubator. This is a role that we are being highly encouraged to fill by our federal partners such as the Joint Forces Command, by our industry partners in the area. They want us to be a market maker. Along those lines we’ve aggressively recruited small businesses. We are providing space and creating partnering opportunities for small businesses to develop the types of models and simulations that we will need two to five years from now. We signed up just this week two new small businesses to be members of VMASC. We have brought into the fold over the past couple of months, two or three others. You can see, we are attracting businesses into this area and they are very hungry, they are very agile and they are willing to work on things that have tremendous potential, but are not ready for market yet. We help mitigate their risk with some seed funding and some help with processing contracts and proposals. We help team them with larger companies to develop their ideas further and bring them to market. Those are some ways that we are serving in that market-maker, incubator role.

As for the broader picture, in the international modeling and simulation community, the two areas we are most aggressively pursuing in research and development are (1) models and simulation games for education and (2) medical modeling and simulation. We believe these are budding areas that are right at the cusp of breaking through to change the way we teach our K-through-12 students, our college students, our medical students. Training simulations will never replace on-the-job training, but they will be great supplements and will allow training capabilities that don’t exist today. Already there are mandates that doctors and nurses must be simulation trained for doing a technique before they can do it on a human. The value of this sort of training is being recognized in a number of professions. We are moving ahead in these areas. They are areas we see five years from now, 10 years from now, having a very prominent role in VMASC.

Q: The center has been given a major role in a $1.75-million project funded this year by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The grant—the Critical Infrastructure Resiliency Project—comes via the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Can you tell us more about that?
A: We have entered into a three-way partnership with the University of Virginia Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems, headed up by Yacov Haimes, and with Virginia Tech, whose efforts are headed up by Fred Krimgold, the director of the Disaster Risk Reduction Program at Tech’s Alexandria Research Institute. The VMASC effort is led by John Sokolowski. We have a team involved: Mike Fontaine from the university’s civil engineering faculty and I are on it as well. We’re modeling the infrastructure of the Hampton Roads area—communications, transportation, gas and electric power, water, sewer. We will lay all that down in layers and our goal is to look at any event, natural or man-made, that causes a disruption to the infrastructure. We’ll be able to model that and show the dependency of those infrastructure subsystems on each other.

You can find out from studying this what areas will be affected and how they are affected. You can plan for that effect, take steps to mitigate its effect and plan how to reset your community if a dirty bomb is detonated or a hurricane strikes. Or the disruption could be in the port if a ship that is full of fuel breaks up. How does that affect the coastal region? How does that affect your tourism, your fisheries? This area is so unique in that it has it all. It has the coastal regions, the inland regions. We’re the third largest port on the East Coast. We have rail, we have air transportation, we have mass transit, trucking lines. All of that exists right here and if we can develop a methodology for infrastructure resiliency, we can share that with other regions such as Galveston, Miami, Newark, New York, Baltimore, San Diego, Los Angeles and so forth. We can model the infrastructures to deal with catastrophes.

Michael McGinnis, Executive Director
Professor of Systems Engineering
Ph.D. in systems and industrial engineering,
University of Arizona

John Sokolowski, Director of Research
Adjunct assistant professor of engineering management
and systems Ph.D. in engineering modeling and simulation,
Old Dominion University

Catherine Banks, Director of Academic Affairs
Adjunct assistant professor of political science
Ph.D. in international studies, Old Dominion University

Robert Armstrong Jr., Director of Technology
Master’s degree in computer science,
U.S. Navy Postgraduate School
Ph.D. student in engineering modeling and simulation, Old Dominion University

Michael Robinson, Programs Advancement Director
Master’s degree in physics, U.S. Navy Postgraduate School

Roland Mielke, Former Interim Executive Director and Graduate Program Director
University Professor of electrical and computer engineering
Ph.D. in electrical engineering, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Quest June 2007 • Volume 10 Issue 1