New program to address the cybersecurity skills, workforce gap

Today, there are more than 3 billion “things” connected to the Internet, with projections set to exceed 20 billion devices by 2020. This tidal wave of new devices connected to the internet presents a complex cybersecurity challenge for device engineers and infrastructure owners. The Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (CIRI) is engaged with Howard University in a new project that intends to attract new talent to related fields of study and increase skills specifically related to critical infrastructure resilience. The project will explore strategies for increasing both the aptitude and quantity of qualified engineers and computer programmers.

Internet-connected systems are embedded into multiple facets of our everyday lives, ranging from thermostats, security systems, and baby monitors, to vehicles, power grids, and industrial plants. Because they are so prevalent, they have become an integral aspect of our critical infrastructure network. The challenge is that many of these devices are deemed low-level systems, so developers don’t always design security protections that are as reliable and secure as they should be.

The network that connects these devices is known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Because each device represents a gateway to the larger network, the IoT must be rigorously and vigorously protected, which will require an influx in computer science and engineering professionals who are motivated and capable of designing, implementing, and maintaining applications that span the IoT space.

“The rise of the IoT drives an increased need for competent engineers across the computer system spectrum,” says Dr. Gedare Bloom, principal investigator for the project and assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Howard University, a historically black university based in Washington D.C. “From high-level graphical user interface design for mobile apps to low-level embedded system control engineering, proper support of the health and security of the IoT demands more qualified professionals.”

Securing networked, embedded systems that rely on cyber-physical connections is a complex problem. The complexity of the problem is likely a factor that contributes to the growing workforce gap. Properly trained engineers must be fluent beyond their specialty area—they must also recognize that their implementation choices affect the safety and security of critical infrastructure components connected across the IoT.

Dr. Bloom’s program, titled Security Engineering for Resilient Networked Critical Infrastructure, aims to address this need. However, he recognizes that accomplishing this goal requires more than just a bigger pipeline of engineers and computer scientists. In addition to closing the workforce, the project is specifically built to expose underrepresented minority students to a high-demand field of study. According to the National Action Council for Minority Students in Engineering, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos make up 30% of the U.S. population, but they only account for 12.5% of graduates from STEM fields.

Dr. Bloom’s project is two-fold: (1) attract more students to relevant programs of study with a special emphasis on attracting minority students, and (2) increase the competence of students graduating with degrees in these areas. His program will focus on increasing enrollment and graduation rates for computer science, computer engineering, and electrical engineering degree programs at Howard University. This project represents a five-year collaborative commitment between Howard University and CIRI.

The project utilizes a problem-based learning approach, which encourages students to develop both critical thinking skills and subject matter expertise by working on open-ended problems. The ubiquitous nature of IoT applications makes them well-suited to use in problem-based learning because the learning scenarios give relevance and meaning to course projects.

Dr. Bloom’s program introduces students to a broad range of critical infrastructure and resilience topics. This helps graduates develop skill sets that have both depth and breadth, which is essential in creating well rounded engineers and computer scientists who are equipped to handle emerging cybersecurity challenges.

CIRI is a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Illinois. CIRI provides financial, operational, and strategic support to a portfolio of projects that explore research-based solutions to homeland security challenges related to security and infrastructure.