GREAT LAKES, Ill. (NNS) -- Naval Service Training Command (NSTC), along with Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) units at universities and colleges across the country, marked four years of using a high-tech computer-based Mariner Skills Simulator (MSS) March 25.
MSS provides future Navy officers navigational skills, even before stepping onto their first ship.
"This has been really interesting and pretty cool," said Midshipman 1st Class Ryan Mahon, 22, from Long Island, N. Y., a senior at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "Instead of just plotting on maneuvering boards, the skills simulator lets us visualize the result of that plotting."
Marquette's NROTC unit began using the simulator in 2010 and, according to Naval science instructors; the system is allowing midshipmen to see what it's like to drive a ship in and out of port.
"This software gives a visualization of what we teach and discuss in class," said Lt. Jon-Andrew Anderson, 27, from Lincoln, Neb., and assistant professor of naval science at Marquette. "It allows the student to plot courses, learn relative motion and actually act out and see what they have just plotted."
When NSTC officials looked to create a navigational classroom aid for NROTC units in 2008, they originally unveiled a state-of-the-art Conning Officer Virtual Environment (COVE) and Sub Skills Net simulators at Jacksonville University (JU) in Jacksonville, Fla. They soon determined they needed something simpler than the navigational systems in place on Navy bases around the country.
"We found that COVE and the Sub Skills Net was too involved and required too many people to operate them," said Dr. Michael Belanger, integrated logistics support manager from NSTC's Logistics (N4) department, who headed up the search and acquisition of what is now MSS.
"We looked into buying navigational software but it was very expensive," Belanger said. "We liked the Sub Skills Net, and they said they might be able to come up with a program for surface ships similar to what they had for submarine drivers and navigators."
Through the Sub Skills Net designers and NSTC software engineers, the MSS was born. Today, the more than 20 NROTC units with the simulator are learning and developing the skills needed to safely and proficiently navigate on open waters once their naval career begins.
"The way ahead for the Navy is simulation," said Capt. Joseph A. Bauknecht, commanding officer at Marquette. "It reduces overall operating costs in the fleet by doing more simulation. Today, here at Marquette, MSS is exposing students to simulation when we didn't have that before. It was all charts, maps and diagrams on a board. Now they have a real visualization of what they are trying to learn."
Belanger said JU, Auburn, Savannah State and San Diego Universities were the first test beds for the new software.
"We found that the software could enable students to work on MSS at any time even after class at night," Belanger said. "They didn't need other people to fire the system up. They could come in, turn on a computer and click on an icon. We also found that today's shipboard technology has gone way past the paper base."
Belanger noted that on most ships today, navigation plotting stations are digital with a radar underneath to mark out coastlines and harbor land masses and navigational visual aids.
Anderson said MSS is designed to allow midshipmen and officer candidates to gain confidence in navigation and to be comfortable when they step on the bridge of their first ship.
"We are here in the middle of the country, and although we are right on Lake Michigan, we are thousands of miles from ships at sea," Anderson said. "Think how confident a new ensign will be when they recognize landmarks and visual navigation aids in San Diego, Norfolk, Seattle or anywhere in the world a U.S. Navy ship pulls into port."
At Marquette and other universities, NROTC units have set up electronic classrooms with numerous linked computer stations. Each station has two monitors where a midshipman or officer candidate can see a digital navigation map that is similar to what they will see on radars and monitors on a bridge of a ship. The other monitor is the view they'd see coming or leaving a port or harbor, like looking out at the port from the bridge. There are also weather elements that can be programed and called up.
"We can program the morning marine layer in San Diego that can obscure Pt. Loma or NAS (Naval Air Station) North Island, or we can show them how thick and fast fog can roll into Puget Sound in Washington State, or show them rain in Norfolk," Anderson said.
The MSS consists of software for navigation and seamanship. It is also used by the Navy at training commands, allowing students to accurately gauge a ship's navigation and handling and enhancing its contact management. Students can work as a team of two or three using a drop-down screen that shows them the same forward view that is on one of their computer monitors. The large screen also allows instructors to better measure the progress of the midshipman or officer candidate.
Prior to MSS arriving, NROTC students were unable to get real experiences as navigators.
"Today, midshipmen and officer candidates can now develop the cognitive skills necessary to be strong watch standers and can be evaluated on those skills by the instructor," said Lt. Saul Pavlinsky, senior naval science instructor at JU in 2008, adding the simulator will have many benefits for instructors.
"Rather than attempting to teach the students theoretical aspects of navigation and ship handling, I am able to actually show them the real life applications of the tools they are learning in the classroom," Pavlinsky said. "The simulators are operating great and are providing the students an opportunity for hands-on operations vice sitting through a lecture about the theory of operations."
Plans are underway for seven more universities to be equipped with MSS in 2012. In 2013 and 2014, nine more units will be learning navigation using MSS. Eventually, NSTC officials hope all the NROTC units will have MSS.
Anderson, who was the navigator at his last command, guided-missile destroyer USS Momsen (DDG 92), said he hopes the Midshipmen and officer candidates will be as excited learning as he has been excited teaching navigation using MSS.
"I always wanted to be a navigator," Anderson said. "It's what I really like to do. Being here and showing Marquette's midshipmen, officer candidates and students how exciting and challenging it can be to drive a ship into port using navigational points and landmarks is rewarding. It's neat to see them become excited bringing a ship into port successfully."
The NROTC program is overseen by NSTC, headquartered at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill. NROTC develops young men and women morally, mentally, and physically, and instills in them the highest ideals of honor, courage, and commitment. The program educates and trains young men and women for leadership positions in an increasingly technical Navy and Marine Corps.
Training is an important element of the readiness area of the 21st Century Sailor and Marine initiative which consolidates a set of objectives and policies, new and existing, to maximize Sailor and Marine personal readiness, build resiliency and hone the most combat-effective force in the history of the Department.
For more information about NROTC, visit www.nrotc.navy.mil.
For more news from Naval Service Training Command, visit www.navy.mil/local/greatlakes/.