Real-World Experience in Virtual Safety Gives Students Cybersecurity Skills Via Department of Defense Partnership

Real-World Experience in Virtual Safety Gives Students Cybersecurity Skills Via Department of Defense Partnership
WVU Photo/Brian Persinger WVU computer science major Heather Fetty works with members on the West Virginia National Guard during Operation Locked Shield, an international cybersecurity training exercise.

At a U.S. Army base command center, a computer beeps and displays a warning: the power has gone down in one corner of the base. Cybersecurity experts jump into action. They ensure critical systems are on backup generators as they search for the reason for the outage. One of them points to her screen and calls out that the power grid’s information system has been compromised—a cyber attack is likely underway.

Their professor applauds.

A realistic simulation like this one will be possible not just on military bases, but also in West Virginia University classrooms, through a partnership U.S. Cyber Command’s Academic Engagement Network.

WVU is one of 84 educational institutions that will work closely with CYBERCOM, part of the U.S. Department of Defense. Students will engage in applied research and innovation while gaining valuable cybersecurity workforce training.

This translates into a leadership advantage in a rapidly growing field, according to Anurag Srivastava, professor and chair of the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

“Cybersecurity is the fastest growing degree program in our department,” Srivastava said. “We always tell students that there are almost half a million cybersecurity jobs open right now. It’s here to stay and in fact, increase.”

“Engagement like this opportunity with CYBERCOM will allow us to show students at least one very good application for what they are learning in classes: to help with national defense,” Srivastava said.

Students can also major in cybersecurity at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, from the approach of management information systems.

“While we cover a variety of security strategies and technologies in our classes, we really focus on teaching students how to be effective cybersecurity problem-solvers,” Chris Ramezan, assistant professor of cybersecurity at Chambers College, said. “Not only are we trying to solve technical problems, we’re trying to do it in a way that supports the business mission. Developing solutions to solve security issues is one thing but ensuring that each solution works in a way that supports the organization’s mission is something else entirely.”

Both computer science and business school majors will have access to CYBERCOM’s academic partnership, including expertise from some of the country’s most eminent cybersecurity experts and prestigious civilian internship opportunities.

The students also hope to collaborate and learn more from one another. “Our students want more choices, more electives, including the business classes at Chambers,” Srivastava said. “We usually look at the infrastructure and operational side and they look at the business and information side.”

That’s where learning labs come into play. Student teams can see how many ways a system can be compromised, find its vulnerabilities or weak spots and develop appropriate defenses.

“In cybersecurity, hands-on experience is invaluable,” Ramezan said. “Classroom learning is great—it gives students that foundational knowledge and provides them with the environment to sharpen their cybersecurity skills. But being able to learn by doing, through applying their knowledge on real-world cybersecurity problem sets, is really key for any future cybersecurity professional.”

Cross-college experiences also result in leadership development and teamwork skills, as seen in last spring’s out-of-classroom cyber competition, Locked Shields. WVU students from engineering, business, law and media schools cooperated with the West Virginia National Guard and Polish allies to defend a fictional country. Their hard work led the U.S. team to its highest ranking in the exercise.

“It built confidence in students that they can participate and make an impact and they can use the knowledge learned in classrooms to contribute to nationally important issues,” Srivastava said.

Locked Shields also put WVU on CYBERCOM’s radar, Ramezan said.

“The genesis of CYBERCOM’s initiative was to leverage talent in academic spaces that previously they hadn’t considered using,” he said. “The majority of the time, they consult to major IT consulting vendors or use their own talents. This will create new conduits for academic talent in both the Statler and Chambers colleges to be able to contribute.”

“The size and scope of U.S. CYBERCOM is second to none—the largest in the world,” Ramezan said, adding that students will be able to work on complex data sets and challenges.

Srivastava envisions giving students access to more frequent live-fire exercises like Locked Shields through CYBERCOM, such as simulated attacks on critical infrastructure or public utilities.

“We’re excited to put some of our research-interested undergraduate and graduate students in the Lane Department on problem sets of national importance,” he said.

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