Louisiana Tech University Professor Travis Atkison is leading his students in a discussion on cybersecurity. The students are gathered in a special campus laboratory called the Digital Forensics and Control Security Lab.
In the lab, students work on projects that help them hone skills in detecting malicious app
lications and identifying threats to industrial control systems. Atkison reminds them that there are currently more than 2 billion people and 12 billion devices included in the online world, and that the professionals who work in cybersecurity will have to constantly outmaneuver the next threat.
“We’re all about project-based, hands-on learning here,” says Atkison. “We’re teaching these students to think on their feet and be problem solvers because in the cyber field, they’re going to be working on issues in 10 years that don’t even exist today.”
Louisiana Tech University is a designated Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency.
In the fall of 2012, the institution launched a four-year cyber-engineering major — the first such degree program in the United States.
Over the last seven years, economic developers here in north Louisiana have worked to expand the knowledge-based economy, particularly in the cybersector.
It’s a departure for a region of a state known more for oil and gas, advanced manufacturing industries and agriculture. But efforts to grow the industry have paid off. Since 2007, north Louisiana supports one of the fastest growing cybersecurity clusters in the nation. Local universities, colleges and economic organizations are creating benchmark education and workforce development programs.
North Louisiana’s focus on network security began when state and local leaders launched an effort to develop a cyber-research park, which they believed could build upon a nearby asset, the 22,000-acre Barksdale Air Force Base located outside Bossier City, La. Funded by local and state resources, officials raised $100 million and developed a 64-acre research park modeled after the Cummings Research Park in Alabama and the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. The research park is anchored by the non-profit Cyber Innovation Center, an economic development organization that encourages growth of the cyber-industry in north Louisiana.
“Essentially, we are building a cybersecurity economic development engine here,” says G.B. Cazes, vice president of the Cyber Innovation Center. “We’re seeing a workforce groundswell, so we’re putting training and education programs in place to meet the exploding needs in the cyber job market.”
The National Cyber Research Park in Bossier City now houses some of the industry’s biggest names including The Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Computer Sciences Corp. Information technology companies such as WaLa!, Venyu, Ingalls and Riverside Research Institute have also moved to the site.
The cluster growth expanded across north Louisiana, where young entrepreneurs have set up shop at CoHabitat, a co-working space in Shreveport. Moonbot Studios, a digital media company founded by acclaimed animator William Joyce, is located in BioSpace 1 at the InterTech Science Park.
Technology start-ups focused on commercializing the nanotechnology and cybersecurity research coming out of Louisiana Tech University have migrated to the university’s new Enterprise Campus in Ruston. CenturyLink, the nation’s third largest telecommunications company in the nation, quickly snatches up graduates from local university science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.
“The growth in our cyber and technology sectors demands that our region, state and nation address the critical shortage of workers with technology and STEM skills,” says Scott Martinez, president of North Louisiana Economic Partnership, the regional economic development organization for north Louisiana.
The Cyber Innovation Center promotes the advancement of STEM and cyber-education in both secondary and post-secondary educational institutions. It has worked closely with Louisiana Tech and Bossier Parish Community College and is also developing a national model for STEM education for kindergarten through 12th-grade institutions. The organization created the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center, or NICERC, to advance its academic outreach and workforce development programs. It focuses on curriculum design, professional development and collaboration in K-12 education.
One of its major projects is the week-long Cyber Discovery training program. It seeks to engage small groups of students and teachers in both the technical and social science aspects of cyberspace.
“We designed Cyber Discovery to provide an interdisciplinary experience for teachers and students by showing the linkages between history, engineering, mathematics, political science and computer science, and then wrapping those elements within today’s social context and current technologies,” says Galen Turner, chief academic officer for NICERC and professor of mathematics and statistics at Louisiana Tech.
The Cyber Discovery model was rolled out nationally at the University of Baltimore in 2012, and is being integrated in several different schools across the country, says Cazes. The program has received a Department of Homeland Security grant to help the model reach 65 universities, 700 high schools, 14,000 teachers and 2 million students over the next decade.
The idea of the Cyber Discovery program, says Cazes, is to train small groups of teachers in STEM teaching fundamentals, including classroom project ideas. The program also provides opportunities for selected students to engage in upper level STEM projects, including hands-on labs that showcase cybersecurity, cryptography, engineering, mathematics and forensics. Both teachers and students return to their school settings and spread enthusiasm for STEM education.
The center is working to develop modules that reach more middle school children, so that from an early age, students are more comfortable with STEM disciplines.
“It’s not enough to teach math and science in silos. We also believe it’s important to integrate liberal arts into the idea of cyber and STEM curricula. Kids need to learn to think on their feet and to put cyber issues into the proper context,” Cazes says.
“Down the road, here and elsewhere, we are going to need thousands and thousands of workers in this field, where you might currently only have hundreds,” he says.
The traditional model of teaching cyber has morphed into a more comprehensive interdisciplinary academic program. Louisiana Tech developed its cyber-engineering program in response to a suggestion made by Kamal T. Jabbour, senior scientist for information assurance at the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Jabbour is a national expert in information assurance, including defensive information warfare and offensive information warfare technology. About five years ago, he advocated the creation of cyber-engineering degree programs that could prepare students in the field in a more thorough manner than was being achieved in academic programs where it was an academic concentration, not a major.
“We took Dr. Jabbour’s idea very seriously,” says Atkison. “We started on developing a curriculum that could not only give students the right balance of the technical skills, but also the right liberal arts background to put this type of work in the proper context.”
Louisiana Tech’s cyber-engineering major combines components of electrical engineering and computer science, while also giving students exposure to social science topics such as the future and history of information warfare, national security policies, law and ethics.
Between the first and second year of the program, student enrollment jumped 300 percent.
“We know we’re on the frontier of this body of work,” says Atkison. “In something like traditional electrical engineering, you study the same circuits today that you studied 10 years ago. But in cyber-engineering, we know that what’s out there in a decade will be nothing like what we see now. That means we have to create problem solvers — students who will be able to adapt.”
Photo Credit: Cyber Innovation Center