UA Little Rock Receives $5 Million to Advance Cybersecurity Education and Innovation – News – UA Little Rock – University of Arkansas at Little Rock

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The University of Arkansas at Little Rock has received $5 million in federal funding aimed at enhancing cybersecurity in the energy sector through education, workforce development, and innovation.

The award comes from appropriations language authored by U.S. Sen. John Boozman passed into law in December 2022. The funding is provided by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response.

“Developing a workforce of skilled professionals to combat cybercrime is increasingly important,” Sen. Boozman said. “I’m proud to support this initiative to strengthen our state’s role in preventing cybersecurity attacks and create additional opportunities for Arkansans to safeguard critical energy networks.”

UA Little Rock is leading a cohort of partners that include the Consortium for Cyber Innovation, Forge Institute, the University of Arkansas, and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). The objectives include improving education, training, and workforce development for securing industrial control systems (ICS) against cybersecurity attacks, improving cybersecurity threat analysis and intelligence sharing, and creating an innovation startup program for cybersecurity in the energy sector.

“The energy sector, and electric utilities in particular, are on the front lines when it comes to nation-state cybersecurity attacks,” said Dr. Philip Huff, assistant professor of cybersecurity at UA Little Rock and principal investigator. “This groundbreaking initiative underscores UA Little Rock and our partners’ commitment to stay at the forefront of cybersecurity education and research, empowering students and researchers to address the complex challenges of the digital age. We are especially grateful to Sen. Boozman and the Department of Energy for helping Arkansas become better prepared for the growing threat of cybersecurity attacks in the energy sector.”

The Consortium for Cyber Innovation, which includes UA Little Rock, Forge Institute, UAPB, and community college partners in Arkansas, will be creating a competency-based certificate program in cyber-informed engineering tailored for the energy sector. These certificates will equip students with specialized skills tailored to meet the evolving demands of the cybersecurity landscape and will strengthen the cybersecurity expertise of operators, technicians, and engineers within the energy sector. The certificate program will integrate into existing computer science and cybersecurity programs at universities and community colleges within the Consortium for Cyber Innovation.

“This funding will enable UAPB to hire two cybersecurity instructors who will participate in formulation of not only certificate programs but also revise the course offering in the undergraduate cybersecurity program and graduate program in computer science and technology,” said Dr. Grant Wangila, interim dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at UAPB. “This investment also goes beyond filling the instructors; it enables faculty to engage with industry, government, schools, and colleges in developing these new programs in cyber-informed engineering.”

While developing the certificate program, the researchers will conduct a regional workforce needs assessment on the energy sector within Arkansas and its neighboring regions. This will include hosting a series of workshops, webinars, and site visits to get the feedback needed to understand the workforce skill needs for cyber-informed engineering. The needs assessment will ensure that students have knowledge and skills to address real-world challenges and are prepared for high-demand jobs.

Additionally, the funding will support the establishment of an innovation startup program in the Emerging Threat Information Sharing and Analysis Center dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship in energy cybersecurity, progressing ideas from concept to commercialized solutions.

“As the Forge Institute spearheads the creation of a national innovation center for grid-connected security and resiliency, we are not just incubating early-stage ideas; we are nurturing the seeds of national security and resilience,” said Lee Watson, chairman and CEO of Forge Institute. “This center, rooted in the heart of Arkansas, will be a beacon of American innovation and determination, setting a pioneering path for the rest of the country to follow. Together, we are forging a safer, more resilient future for our nation.”

The innovation program will include a mentorship program, a 12-to-14-week pre-accelerator program to help formalize new entrepreneurial ventures, and a series of innovation programs for students, faculty, community, and industry members. Researchers will work with students so they can receive academic credit for participating in the pre-accelerator program.

“We are on the cusp of a national revolution in cybersecurity and grid resilience, right here in Arkansas,” Watson said. “The collaboration between the Forge Institute, UA Little Rock, and the Consortium for Cyber Innovation, established in 2019, signifies a monumental leap towards safeguarding our nation’s energy infrastructure. It’s a testament to what can be achieved on a national scale when local entities unite with a common purpose. I am profoundly grateful to Chancellor Drale, Dr. Huff, Dr. Farnell, and Dr. Wangila and the entire UA Little Rock, University of Arkansas, and UAPB teams for their purposeful collaborations and Sen. John Boozman for his steadfast support, which has been instrumental in this endeavor.”

Additionally, the award will fund research initiatives leveraging artificial intelligence (AI), deep reinforcement learning techniques to identify optimal protection strategies against cyber threats. This research will be used to enhance the Emerging Threat Information Sharing and Analysis Center’s automated threat analysis process by refining its attack simulation environment. Bastazo, a university startup company specializing in cutting-edge cybersecurity solutions with ties to UA Little Rock and the University of Arkansas, is leading the technical development for this project and will use deep reinforcement learning to model realistic interactions between threat actors and defenders.

“In deep reinforcement learning, a machine learning model learns through trial and error without requiring a set of allowed actions to be predetermined,” said Dr. Kylie McClanahan, chief technical officer of Bastazo. “Through this, we hope to identify new strategies to mitigate vulnerabilities and prevent exploitation and, ultimately, to improve cybersecurity in the electric sector.”

Furthermore, innovative virtual reality (VR) training environments will be created to provide immersive experiences simulating the effects of cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure such as the power grid. Researchers at the University of Arkansas will  augment the cybersecurity testbed at the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission (NCREPT) test facility to allow remote access and experimentation for training and research purposes.

“We are very excited to partner with this team to help advance workforce development, expand NCREPT’s cyber-testbed capabilities, and further develop collaborations in the area of cybersecurity to secure our nation’s critical infrastructure,” said Dr. Chris Farnell, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and associate director NCREPT at the University of Arkansas.

NCREPT officials will also develop training modules to assist researchers and students in familiarizing themselves with ICS and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition cybersecurity vulnerabilities and mitigation. Collaborating partners will be able to use the ICS simulation environments for cyber-attack exercises and cybersecurity training.

“I am very excited about how this investment will help strengthen the cybersecurity ecosystem here in Arkansas,” said Dr. Brian Berry, vice provost of research and dean of the Graduate School at UA Little Rock. “Most importantly, it will help train the next generation of cybersecurity experts.”

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