UVA Engineering Earns NSF Award to Launch Cyber-Physical Systems Graduate Program

The $3 million award will help UVA’s Link Lab establish an innovative curriculum focused on real-world challenges for Ph.D. students, plus an 18-month master’s degree in cyber-physical systems

All of the grand challenges facing humanity – ranging from healthcare to cybersecurity to environmental resilience – have this in common: Solving them will require increasingly sophisticated connections between the cyber and physical worlds. But the need to unleash the Internet of Things and harness big data is so urgent, it is outpacing the nation’s ability to prepare researchers with the skills and experience to solve large-scale, societal problems.

The University of Virginia School of Engineering’s Link Lab, a center of excellence in cyber-physical systems research and education, is developing a new program to train graduate students to make discoveries associated with cyber and the Internet of Things, then translate that knowledge into new technologies, products and services. The Link Lab has earned a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to create the training program, which is expected to become a national model for graduate education in cyber-physical systems.

“Cyber-physical systems have the potential to transform the economy and world,” said Jack Stankovic, Link Lab director, BP America Professor of Computer Science and co-chair of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Committee on 21st Century Cyber-Physical Systems Education. Stankovic was co-author of the committee’s 2016 report that concluded a three-year study of the need for better training in the field.

“While cyber-physical systems as a discipline and technology enabler has evolved tremendously over the past decade, current training for graduate students does not sufficiently prepare them for either fundamental discovery or innovation, or for effective translation and application development,” Stankovic said. “U.S. companies indicate they have a critical need for trained cyber-physical systems personnel to develop new products and services.”

The Link Lab’s new training program supports Ph.D. students performing cyber-physical systems research, and provides an option for graduate students in other disciplines to seek a cyber-physical systems concentration. In addition, plans include establishing an 18-month master’s degree in cyber-physical systems. A new curriculum will emphasize hands-on learning; research on real-world, multidisciplinary problems that could benefit from a cyber-physical systems approach; and professional development.

“We intend to emphasize convergence activities as part of their training,” Stankovic said. “Cyber-physical systems is inherently multidisciplinary, with multiple engineering and computer disciplines brought to bear in developing new technologies and addressing grand challenges. Our graduate students will have opportunities to collaborate, embed in labs and workplaces, and manage the deployment of new technologies.”

The program also will focus on recruiting, mentoring and training women and students from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in engineering. Executive Dean Pamela M. Norris said UVA Engineering’s new graduate training program is directly aligned with the recommendations in the 2008 National Academy of Engineering report “Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering,” which urged that attracting a more diverse pool of engineering talent will require granting students’ wishes to develop knowledge and technologies that will make a difference in the world and improve people’s lives.

“We see the evidence every day that this approach works, through our mission to make the world a better place and our core value that diversity is excellence,” Norris said. “The result is that UVA Engineering is a top destination for women students – particularly women in computing and cyber fields – and the number of students from other underrepresented populations who choose our school for undergraduate and graduate studies continues to increase.

“This outstanding new cyber-physical systems training program is a wonderful opportunity for graduate students.”

The UVA grant is among 17 projects the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program recently funded, totaling $51 million, to develop and implement graduate education traineeship models in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The awards will help train the next generation of scientific leaders to develop the skills necessary to tackle complex societal problems.

“Innovative approaches are vital to transforming STEM graduate education,” Jim Lewis, acting assistant director for NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate, said in a recent National Science Foundation news release. “By supporting approaches that utilize evidence-based learning practices, immersing students in interdisciplinary research and providing students with opportunities to develop career-aligned skillsets, NRT projects are helping change the landscape of graduate education and better prepare future STEM scientists for diverse careers.”

The UVA team working on the new graduate program includes Homa Alemzadeh, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Cody Fleming, assistant professor of systems and information engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering; Jonathan Goodall, Link Lab associate director and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and computer science; John Lach, professor of electrical and computer engineering and UVA Engineering’s director of cross-cutting initiatives; Lu Feng, assistant professor of computer science and systems and information engineering; Tolu Odumosu, assistant professor of science, technology and society and electrical engineering; Daniel Quinn, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and electrical and computer engineering; and Yuan Tian, assistant professor of computer science.

“We are pleased to have engaged corporate advisors working with our faculty on this training grant, which will provide our faculty with another powerful tool to recruit and maximize the talents of world-class Ph.D. candidates and master’s degree students, and increase the pipeline of talent for future employers,” said Susan Barker, associate dean for research.

The award comes at an important time for UVA Engineering, which has placed a strong emphasis on engineering for the cyber future as one of its three primary research focus areas, all designed to deliver direct benefit to society. The other two focus areas are engineering for health and engineering technologies for a sustainable and connected world.

“The most important discoveries for humanity are happening at the interfaces between engineering and other disciplines, such as medicine,” said Lach, the director of cross-cutting initiatives. “At UVA, where we have a tradition of collaboration and proximity of world-class faculty across many disciplines, we are uniquely positioned to establish cross-cutting initiatives such as Link Lab to tackle complex challenges and prepare the next generation of leaders.”

UVA Engineering’s multi-disciplinary approach, focused on engineering for the public good, is drawing increased attention from prospective graduate students. UVA Engineering is the No.1 engineering school in the country, among the top-40 engineering graduate schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report, for growth in its graduate program, which is one of the factors helping to drive outstanding growth in the School’s sponsored research funding – 74 percent growth over the past two fiscal years.

The National Science Foundation award for graduate training will provide a strong, new opportunity for graduate students interested in UVA.

“This is a very high-profile award for our UVA team, and it is an affirmation that the Link Lab is truly leading the way in cyber-physical systems,” said UVA Dean Craig Benson. “I anticipate that the significant innovation we are making in graduate education will become not just a model in this emerging field, but in higher education as a whole.”

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