The requests come regularly to the research teams at UCF’s Institute of Simulation and Training (IST). The change leader of a company or with a government agency wants to know how they can take a gigantic innovative leap without also taking a gigantic risk. Is it even possible?
And so, these leaders reach out to IST, where the following promise is exactly that — a promise: “We unleash the impossible.” The people carrying out the promise work in cool labs near a network of roads appropriately named Discovery, Progress and Ingenuity. They are scientists, industry professionals, faculty members, military leaders, technology experts and students. They form the nation’s largest community of corporations, government agencies and educators developing new ways to implement technology for all types of industries through simulation and training.
It’s a lot to comprehend. Grace Bochenek ’98PhD is the director of the School of Modeling, Simulation and Training (SMST), the umbrella under which IST operates. She simplifies the work into something we can all understand.
“What we’re doing is changing the world,” Bochenek says. “The distinctive way we work together continually allows us to extend our capabilities and make lives better.”
Bochenek had the same thought about IST while she worked for the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Energy, where she led the National Energy Technology Laboratory and in 2017 became Acting Secretary of Energy. Her technology background is what attracted her to the position of director two years ago. Now she’s fielding questions that potential partners have been asking since the formation of IST in 1982: What can IST do for my organization?
“My answer?” Bochenek says, “You’re going to be blown away.”
Technology is a field that typically does not stop to reflect. It constantly advances. But you could make a case that no enterprise can match what IST has done with so much consistency and so little general hype for most of its 40 years.
“When IST was founded in 1982, modeling and simulation was just evolving as a technology,” says Bochenek. “In academia, it was barely a whisper. There was no model to follow. IST became the model.”
At that time, UCF’s enrollment totaled about 14,000 commuter students. There was no football team and no widespread notoriety beyond the campus tucked between wetlands, woods, and a hint of development on the east side of Orlando. However, the nation’s leading tech experts knew the truth: this had become the birthplace of a rare approach to innovation.
The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy were early believers. They partnered with IST on sensitive projects, lending early credibility to the groundbreaking simulation work. By the end of its first decade, IST had secured three pillars of future growth: a significant share of all research funding at UCF, a contract to develop prototype databases for the Department of Defense, and space to grow in Research Park. Before the institute celebrated a 10th anniversary U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, who chaired the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, had already called Central Florida “the nation’s hub of simulation technology” and UCF “America’s leading simulation university.”
“Those early successes enabled government organizations to get simulations into the hands of end-users,” says Bochenek. “The collaborative environment that brings together private industry, government and academia is unique. No other U.S. city has this foundation.”
Major corporations soon knew it, too, and wanted to join the neighborhood in Research Park, where they could use simulation to creatively push improvements in healthcare, defense, gaming, emergency response, manufacturing, education, energy and internet technology. The list of partners would eventually include a who’s who of tech leaders: NASA, Siemens, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Verizon, AdventHealth, the U.S. government and more than 200 entities.
“I would come to Orlando for tech events as often as possible back in the early 90s because of the leading-edge simulation work happening here,” says Carolina Cruz-Neira, who was known worldwide as an AR/VR pioneer before joining UCF as an instructor and researcher in early 2020. “Now that I’m in the environment every day, I can talk with innovation leaders from different industries in person and work on projects side by side. They all need simulations to advance their ideas and we have the complete package to do it: research, data, simulation, and results. It’s a one-stop shop that can keep up with the pace of technology. That’s exciting to anyone involved in this field.”
Other institutions would like to follow the IST template, but the traditional “silo” model that creates barriers at other schools never really existed at UCF. It’s why you find computer scientists working with psychologists, healthcare experts, historians, mathematicians, hospitality leaders, nursing instructors, and engineers. All of them free to explore new possibilities.
“I was drawn to the optimistic energy here,” says Deborah German about her appointment as the founding dean of UCFs College of Medicine in 2006. “It’s still that way — a place full of hope, creativity, and opportunities to make dreams possible.”
Optimism. Collaboration. Support. Big ideas. Freedom. It’s hard to completely summarize the success of IST in this space. Former IST employee Randall Williams described it like this: “The diversity across disciplines is one reason IST is so difficult to explain, but it’s also why the institute continues to grow.”
As inspiring as it is to look back at how far IST has come, perhaps the most important trait worthy of $320 million in modeling and simulation research funding is the continual focus on what could be next.
“We’re expanding into a wide range of new projects,” Bochenek says, naming a few that sound like far-off fantasies everywhere except within IST. “We’re working on facial recognition that matches photos of missing children with their biological parents, combatting cyber threats, training warfighters, providing assistance for individuals to self-care after chemotherapy and digital twinning just to name a few.”
And then, with conviction, she says, “We want partners to bring their challenges to us.”
She knows what researchers inside IST have known for 40 years: you’re going to be blown away.