FAIRFIELD, CT – Sacred Heart University has received nearly $250,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a project that aims to teach advanced skills in cyberinfrastructure security to community-college students.
The NSF is an independent federal agency that funds around 25% of all federally supported, basic research conducted by national, higher-education institutions. Its grant will contribute to a nearly three-year, $500,000 collaborative project with Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, VA. It is led by Sajal Bhatia, assistant professor of cybersecurity at SHU, and Irfan Ahmed, assistant professor of computer science at VCU. Two community colleges will benefit from the new curriculum: Capital Community College in Hartford and Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, VA.
Cyberinfrastructure, a term coined by the NSF, refers to information technology systems in industry and government with heavy-duty capacities. Cybersecurity professionals are in high demand, but the supply of potential candidates is not enough to fill the positions. This project targets the shortage.
“Community colleges have students with the potential for enabling a new stream of cybersecurity professionals. These colleges, however, face significant challenges to teaching advanced cybersecurity skills for cyberinfrastructure,” said Bhatia, who also is director of cybersecurity programs at SHU’s School of Computer Science & Engineering in the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology.
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, of the 12 million undergraduates enrolled in more than 1,100 two-year colleges, the breakdown of student demographics is: 47% white, 24% Hispanic, 13% Black, and 6% Asian. Moreover, 36% are first-generation college students, 17% are single parents, and the National Center for Education Statistics identified a significant portion of these students as low-income.
One challenge is that students from many first-generation and low-income families could be less academically prepared than their peers. Additionally, these schools offer no effective cybersecurity curricula, there are limited resources to support any related classwork, and two-year community colleges have fewer required credit hours than four-year colleges. To combat this, Bhatia and Ahmed will develop hands-on modules that can be completed in four to 10 hours, and micromodules that can be completed within one to four hours, according to the National Security Agency’s National Cybersecurity Curriculum Program. These modules will be developed at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels with problem-based learning, through which students solve real world, open-ended problems.
“This project uses problem-based learning, an innovative approach to teaching cybersecurity, to bring community college students into the high rewarding cybersecurity field,” Bhatia said.
To address the scarcity of computing infrastructure at community colleges and support problem-based learning, Bhatia and Ahmed will develop CRICE (Cyber Range Infrastructure for Cybersecurity Education) on NSFCloud, an NSF-funded, free cloud service created for research and training purposes. The educational methods and products developed through the project will be broadly applicable, beyond community colleges, and will contribute to a better trained and more diverse cybersecurity and research workforce. Ultimately, the project will contribute to the health, safety and economic well-being of society by protecting the nation’s cyberinfrastructure.