With new technology, and a new degree program to boot, the University of Central Arkansas is now a resource for cyberdefense training.
Thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, UCA houses a fully functional cyber range, the first to launch at an Arkansas institution for educational training purposes.
“A cyber range is a sandboxed environment that allows students to learn how to practice cybersecurity in such a way that they can work with viruses, work with system attacks, but [be] completely walled off from the external internet,” said Stephen Addison, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
Because UCA’s range is an emulator, students experience real cyberattacks rather than simulations. Cyberattacks can include denial of service, phishing, viruses, identity theft and more. Many people are unaware of just how vulnerable their digital information is, Addison said.
What came first wasn’t the idea for a cyber range, though; it was instead the mission to implement a degree program in cybersecurity. Such a degree would set UCA apart from other programs while also preparing students for the demand of cyberdefenders in the workforce, Addison said.
UCA was approved to begin a Bachelor of Science in cybersecurity program in July 2018 and began courses for it the very next month. The program went from having five students its first semester to more than 30 enrolled in the spring.
With a degree in cybersecurity, students can go on to work in fields like banking, business and health care.
“Our graduates are prepared for the industry: Once they’ve graduated, they’ve already practiced cybersecurity,” said Ahmad Alsharif, instructor.
As the first faculty member to instruct in the degree program, Alsharif teaches the introduction to cybersecurity course. He’ll cover the introduction to number theory and cryptography course, as well as computer forensics, in the future, too.
Alsharif said the existence of the range is key for the program because it allows students to confront real-world scenarios.
“In order for students to practice cybersecurity, they need some kind of practice different from theoretical study,” he said. “The cyber range provides an emulation platform through which students can practice cyberdefense. First they learn how to attack, and if you learn how to attack, you can learn how to defend.”
The implementation of the degree program and the range even inspired some students to change majors. Junior Dylan Diamond, one of the first students in the program, considered pursuing physics and computer science. After learning about the new program — and after discussing the importance of cybersecurity with a relative in the IT field — he switched paths.
“Being in the class for the first time, it was eye-opening,” said Diamond, who is also majoring in applied mathematics. “It was really big on awareness on how insecure a lot of things are and how there’s a lot of, shall I say, conveniences that we take where we cut security for the sake of expedience. It was really amazing to me to be one of the first in the class.”
The cybersecurity industry isn’t limited to only those with science and math backgrounds, Addison said.
“There’s demand for liberal arts graduates. There’s demand for business graduates,” he said. “So one of the things I wanted to do from the onset was to have a collaborative program between [the colleges of Liberal Arts, Business, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics], which is what we have. There are ethics courses; there are business courses, as well as science courses.”
Outside of campus, UCA is working with K-12 schools on developing curriculum related to information security, and it’s also partnering with two-year institutions on creating cybersecurity degree offerings that are compatible with UCA’s requirements for a bachelor’s.
“We didn’t propose a range for UCA only,” Addison said. “We proposed a range that all universities in the state can make use of.”
Addison forecasts that more than 100 students will enroll as cybersecurity majors in the second year of operation, leading to even more growth in the future.
“Becoming a bigger program, we can get more resources, we can improve our cyber range, we can get new technologies,” Alsharif said. “As we get bigger and bigger, we can improve what we are providing for our students.”