The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced this week a new initiative to “reignite a passion for exploration among our nation’s youth”. The program is called the Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR) initiative.

As part of MENTOR, DARPA will contract multiple organizations to deploy a variety of programmable manufacturing equipment—such as 3D printers—to high schools throughout the country and orchestrate a series of prize-based challenges.  High schoolers will compete and collaborate as teams to design and build cyber-electro-mechanical systems. “The systems will be of moderate complexity,” said Paul Eremenko, DARPA program manager. “Challenges will involve the design and building of things like go-carts, mobile robots and small unmanned aircraft. And we’ll encourage collaboration during the challenges through the use of social media and social networking applications.”

The program encourages students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Such skills are critical for careers in systems design and manufacturing, and a strong manufacturing base is essential to maintaining a well-built defense. DARPA will expand the program to over 1000 high schools over the next three years.

Partnet is no stranger to DARPA research projects or to students with great ideas. In 1992—at the dawn of the Internet Age and long before anyone had heard the term eCommerce—Dr. Don Brown’s engineering students presented a unique, yet simple question:  Could you connect databases together over the internet to find repair parts?

Don Brown, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Utah, thought that the military might be interested in such a capability. He made a video documenting how it would work and sent it to DARPA.

DARPA was so impressed with the idea of a distributed architecture that could search for spare parts from multiple, remote databases, they decided to fund the project.  Soon after, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA)—recognizing a new way to support its military customers—joined the project.  By 1998, DOD EMALL—DLA’s first Government eCommerce system—was born.

Over the years, DOD EMALL has grown from a research and development project to a billion-dollar government enterprise. Today, the DOD EMALL hosts a virtual catalog of over 70 million items from 1,900 individual suppliers.

Partnet applauds DARPA’s initiative to promote mathematics and the sciences in our nation’s high schools, and for recognizing that young minds are the key to overcoming technological barriers in the new century.