The Ellington Airman Leadership School is pioneering the use of smart watches in an innovative Air Force effort to train tomorrow’s leaders to be more efficient, effective and ready in a realm of ever-escalating demands.
It’s another first for Edwards Air Force Base, California.
The school introduced smart watches and plans to implement smart rings in the near future to infuse biofeedback and personal management technology into the curriculum.
This will help students improve their physical exercise, their sleep, their timing of when to tackle which tasks and other benefits that will help them be better leaders and accomplish more professionally and personally, said Master Sgt. Chad Hardesty, ALS commandant.
At a place where records and firsts are most often achieved in the skies above the base, this first came about in an ALS classroom.
It didn’t, however, take place in a vacuum.
The school received help from SparkEd, the 412th Test Wing’s innovation team, which provided the funds that paid for the watches, all Garmin Fenix 6S’s. The school is also coordinating closely with the Air Force’s enlisted professional military education offices and the Defense Innovation Unit at the Pentagon.
“Big Air Force is very interested in what we’re doing here with these wearables,” Hardesty said. “We’ve been communicating with them through the whole process of making them part of our curriculum,” he said.
The first class that received the watches just graduated July 16. On their first day of class the students learned the features and functions of the watch, then they downloaded an app onto their phone and synched their devices.
This gives them biofeedback that’s collected, interpreted by software and provided to them through a useful interface that helps them understand how to use the data to improve performance in several ways as they are put through their paces at the ALS.
“The students love the wearables,” Hardesty said.
“Most of them leave them on pretty much 24/7. They provide you with a lot of data that you can use,” he said.
As part of that interface the students are introduced to a few new concepts. One of these is the term, body battery.
Body battery is used to describe – based on the wearer’s own biometric measurements – an estimation of how up-to-the-challenge he or she might be, at a given moment, to perform well doing physically or mentally demanding tasks. The device measures heart rate variability, activity levels, stress levels, and sleep data to estimate the device wearer’s body battery, which is represented by a number between 1 and 100.
During certain lessons, instructors asked the students to look at their body battery level. “Typically their body batteries are high in the morning, said Tech. Sgt. Carmen Turcios Munoz, ALS instructor. “They’d come in with levels in the low 90s and high 80s. Then later in the day, especially after lunch, some of them would be in the low 30s.”
It’s one thing to talk in class about anticipating the energy level that they or those under their command will have, and to take that into account when planning a day. That lesson takes on new meaning when students look at their own numbers that drive the point home, the instructors say.
One of the obvious advantages of biofeedback is during physical training, where instructors challenge class members to improve.
“We want the students to push performance to a whole new level,” Munoz said
“If they go for a run not only can they time their run and record their distance, they can also monitor their heart rate and adjust their pace with the pacing guidance. This enables the runner to improve their run times,” she said.
Munoz also said the instructors issued a step challenge during the third week of training. Whoever took the most steps was declared the winner. The winner took more than 87,000 steps that week – with much of the student’s time spent in a classroom.
The instructors also said many of the students were able to gain a better understanding of their own health and how it might be affecting their ability to perform from simple measurement like their resting heart rate.
“Some of them are looking at their resting heart rate and thinking, ‘If my hear rate’s this high, then I’m not really healthy. Maybe I should start doing a little more cardio.’ I think it puts it into perspective for them,” Munoz said.
The students said the watch freed them from their phones, Munoz said.
“They also like the feature that lets them receive text and emails directly to the device. This allows the students to stay up-to-date and minimizes distractions from phones,” she said.
One strong benefit of using these wearable devices, Hardesty said, is that they provide data points that students can look at to help them have a better understanding of why they did well in one circumstance and not in another. Also, when data from the whole class is analyzed, it can be an indicator the instructors can use to help ensure their classroom activities are designed to have the most benefit for the students. Additionally, as group data is passed on to Air Force level it could have an impact on future curriculum, Hardesty said.
The school is also ready to use Oura rings, in addition to the watches, just as soon as approval is given by the Air Force. The rings also capture a person’s biometric measurements, but take different variables that will complement what the watch does, Hardesty said.
Hardesty pitched the idea of using smart watches twice to the SparkEd team – the official AFWERX-recognized Spark Cell for Edwards – after which the team agreed to fund purchasing the watches.
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.