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Molinaroli College of Engineering and Computing

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Integrating curriculum, experiences and internships for cyberwarfare training

Cyberwarfare engineers are highly technical computer scientists and engineers. Their responsibilities include providing defense against cyberattacks, developing tactical advantages, and creating tools and techniques for providing situational awareness. As the U.S. government continues to invest in cyberwarfare, there is a need for professionals to help protect critical infrastructure. 

This past February, Integrated Information Technology (IIT) Professor Jorge Crichigno began a three-year Office of Naval Research (ONR) and Department of Defense (DoD)-sponsored research project that aims to integrate curriculum, experiences and internships to better prepare future cyberwarfare professionals. His current research is an extension of an ONR-sponsored project from 2020 to 2022. 

“Our work enhanced the preparation of University of South Carolina STEM, ROTC and veteran students to be proficient for cybersecurity and IT careers. The results were successful with many former students now working in cybersecurity for the military or government agencies,” Crichigno says.

Crichigno’s current project will include students from USC as well as South Carolina State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio, which are both minority-serving institutions. He anticipates that aspects of his project will expand to more states. 

Crichigno’s work has several components and three primary objectives. The first is advancing formal and informal cyber communities and connecting to relevant organizations, which is similar to the goal of his previous project to better prepare students. Formal refers to classroom learning, while informal includes disseminating information through workshops, especially for IT professionals working for national labs and campus networks. 

“We’ve previously done online workshops that were co-organized with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that were attended by up to 300 people, and we plan to expand those events,” Crichigno says. “With this current grant, we’re also training military reserve forces in cybersecurity using equipment and materials that are already in place.”

The second objective is developing a multi-state internship program in South Carolina and Texas. The 10-week program through the Naval Research Enterprise Internship program will provide research opportunities and mentorship for undergraduate and graduate students at participating agencies, companies, national laboratories and other organizations. According to Crichigno, even though his project emphasizes the military community, the ONR aims to also prepare students for the general market since there is a need for cybersecurity professionals everywhere. 

“While these internship recruitment activities will be centered at the University of South Carolina, students from the University of Texas at San Antonio and South Carolina State University can attend virtually three times a week. Representatives from companies will speak and network with students for opportunities that upcoming summer,” Crichigno says. “If they do well, they might work for these companies full-time after graduation. We plan to have at least 100 interns per year, so hopefully we'll have 300 students by the end of the project.”

Nikunja Swain, professor and chair of the computer science and mathematics department at South Carolina State University, says that the collaboration will help to enhance the university’s  existing and planned cybersecurity capacity and develop a skilled workforce that is better prepared to address national security threats. 

"High-profile data breaches have become all too common in recent years. A 2022 cybersecurity workforce study revealed that 3.4 million more cybersecurity workers are needed to secure assets effectively. This indicates a clear need to increase research, education and awareness training for employees,” Swain says. 

The third objective will expand USC’s academic cloud system, which will allow different communities to receive online education and training. 

“We’ve already extended the academic cloud system, and it’s currently being used by the Cyber and Information Advantage Battalion at the U.S. National Guard. They are being trained in cybersecurity and cyberwarfare using this cloud system, so it connects the third objective with the first objective of informal cyber communities,” Crichigno says. 

Crichigno says that hundreds of professionals have already been trained since his project began in February. Future plans include organizing workshops online and co-located with regional and national conferences such as the Internet2 Technology Exchange Conference, a premier tech event for IT professionals and service providers, executives and entrepreneurs. The conference will be held this September in Minneapolis. 

“Our lab here is very instrumental for all the different communities because we have the cloud, expertise and technology. We are generating these state-of-the-art materials that serve as training,” Crichigno says. 

The grant will also cover research by approximately 30 IIT undergraduate students into programmable switches, an innovative chip technology. Crichigno has an agreement with Intel Corporation, which produces these chips. 

“The Department of Defense is interested in this technology because it allows us to see what is happening in networks with fine-grained nanosecond resolution, which is unattainable with current devices,” Crichigno says. “Since there is not much material to train professionals and students in programmable switches technology, we’ll create virtual labs that will run in the cloud that can be used by anyone across the country.”  

Crichigno’s research project expects to teach more than 400 students, IT professionals and military personnel each year with relevant skills for the Navy and Department of Defense. At the end of the project, around 1,500 participants will be trained through workshops, more than 300 students at internship locations, and nearly 100 students performing relevant research. 

“We expect to have about 10,000 learners that will do self-paced, informal or unsupervised learning. These numbers will be indicators of success,” Crichigno says. “We will do our best to expand the infrastructure and train and educate learners according to ONR’s, DoD’s and other employer’s needs.”    

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