A New Kind of Homeland Security

Main page content

UW Tacoma and the tri-campus Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity focus on veterans and military.

Students in Tacoma's Master of Cybersecurity and Leadership program prepare to fight the cyber-attacks of the future. Photos by Cody Char.For me, it was Alex, who lived two houses down.

Growing up, we might have had one or two kids on the block who were “trouble.” Now, 2.4 billion people are our digital neighbors. And there are a lot of Alexes out there.

“We are not protected by oceans or soft countries on either side anymore. And our neighbors are no longer friendly,” says Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, a professor in UW Tacoma’s Institute of Technology and the executive director of the tri-campus UW Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity (an NSA/DHS designated Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education and Research).

Cybersecurity breaches are a growing issue. The cases of Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden exemplify the impact of a security breach (regardless of your beliefs about the ethics of their actions).

And yet, we don’t have the manpower to meet this growing threat. Estimates vary, but generally recommend that the United States needs tens of thousands more cybersecurity experts than currently work in the field. “We’re horribly lacking in cybersecurity expertise,” says Endicott-Popovsky. The typical strategy to meet this shortage is to train self-identified “techies” in cybersecurity and hope that this population will be enough.

But the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity is trying a different tack at UW Tacoma: training transitioning veterans and active-duty military in cybersecurity.

As part of this strategy, the campus is becoming a hub of the center’s veteran-focused activity, with Endicott-Popovsky moving to Tacoma. The Master’s of Cybersecurity Leadership, a unique partnership between the Institute of Technology and Milgard School of Business, is preparing veterans and active-duty military to head cybersecurity initiatives. A new grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will help fuel this work.

Cybersecurity in Tacoma

Much of UW Tacoma's focus in its cybersecurity program is on educating military and veterans.

The UW Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity was created in 2004 to prepare students for careers in cybersecurity, protecting computer systems from accidents, hackers, viruses and other security threats. This year, it helped propel the UW to rank as the tenth highest-rated school in the country for the study of cybersecurity.

The tri-campus center’s resources and opportunities, such as the Scholarship for Service program or international and local internships, are open to students in Tacoma, Seattle and Bothell. While the Tacoma arm has existed since the center’s inception, the campus’ activities were invigorated in recent years by Bryan Goda, with the support of former Chancellor Debra Friedman.

The center’s work in Tacoma is growing, in large part due to this region’s large military population. For the foreseeable future, around 8,000 military members are expected to come to the South Sound bases every year.

“The proximity of Tacoma to those bases makes it an ideal place to provide academic programs for these particular students,” says Endicott-Popovsky.

To that end, Endicott-Popovsky is teaching and directing the center from Tacoma, a sign of the center’s growing emphasis on Tacoma and veteran activities. Endicott-Popovsky says, however, that the move will not change her relationships with Seattle and Bothell.

Why Veterans and Military?

In many ways, veterans and active-duty military are a natural fit for careers in cybersecurity. “Protecting the homeland and homeland infrastructure aligns very nicely with what they’ve been doing to protect the homeland overseas,” says Endicott-Popovsky. As many return from overseas and transition into civilian life, the shortage of cybersecurity experts provides job opportunities.

Yet many veterans have faced barriers in entering the field. In 2009, the National Science Foundation studied the first streams of veterans returning from Mid East conflicts and using their GI Bill® benefits. It found that few were pursuing STEM or technical degrees when they returned, even though many had had technical jobs in the military. As a result of this study, the National Science Foundation offered funding to universities to explore the stumbling blocks to returning military as they seek STEM degrees. The UW was one of the 16 universities to receive these grants, with Endicott-Popovsky as the principal investigator.

The Master of Cybersecurity and Leadership program is in its second year at UW Tacoma. This year, the UW Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity increases its efforts in Tacoma, due in large part to its growing focus on veterans and military.

From 2010 to 2012, the team used military and veteran UW students as a case study. They found that many veterans chose the military over attending college because they struggled academically, and when they reentered academia, they found they had deficits, especially in math and English. The center set up a math boot camp program to help get students up to speed, encouraging them to embrace mathematics.

The team also looked at the cultural struggles veterans can experience in a university setting, moving from the hierarchical environment of the military to the less organized classroom setting. As a result, the center provides support to veterans as they navigate the maze of higher education and guidance to faculty as they instruct veterans.

“We are focused in Tacoma on addressing the academic needs of transitioning military,” says Endicott-Popovsky.

New Grant Gives Students Live-Fire Experience

This September, UW Tacoma, in partnership with the state Department of Commerce and the State Office of the Chief Information Officer, received a grant of $412,000 from the National Institute for Standards and Technology to beef up cybersecurity in the Northwest. The grant will help strengthen the connection between military and UW Tacoma. It will also support UW Tacoma’s connection to the Public Regional Information Security Event Management (PRISEM) regional alert system, which collects cybersecurity incident data from smaller local entities – ports, small utilities agencies, and other small businesses. The grant will help expand PRISEM internship opportunities for students, giving them “live-fire” experience.

“There’s nothing like getting on the other end of a computer, watching the attacks roll by, to get a real sense of what’s coming at this country,” says Endicott-Popovsky.

Tech Meets Business

Classes are taught not only by Institute of Technology faculty, but also by those from Milgard School of Business, like Haluk Demirkan.

UW Tacoma’s Master’s of Cybersecurity Leadership, established last year, is geared toward training veterans and members of the military, though enrollment is open to all students. The program is specifically designed to help students become leaders and managers in the field of cybersecurity. It trains students with a unique approach – a pairing of tech and business classes, bringing together the Institute of Technology and the Milgard School of Business.

Most programs of this kind emphasize the technical side of the work, training students to build firewalls and encrypt data. But UW Tacoma’s new degree brings business elements to the curriculum, with classes like Business Essentials and Organizational Change and Strategy. “The fact that Tacoma has partnered between the Institute and the business school I think is quite powerful,” says Endicott-Popovsky. “It is, in my opinion, unique in the country.”

Cybersecurity managers handle large projects that affect many departments, and business classes give students the know-how to implement such changes. Additionally, the weakest links in a cybersecurity system are the people that use it. Individuals like Manning or Snowden illustrate the purposeful security breaches individuals can achieve. Unintentional security breaches can also be caused by negligence or improper installation (as illustrated by the SQL Slammer computer worm in 2003, which was able to attack companies simply because the employees were too busy to update their security systems).

UW Tacoma’s program combines technological and business expertise because a cybersecurity manager needs to understand both elements – how organizations function, and how people behave in these organizations.

Thoughtful Instruction

UW Tacoma is working to create "cybersecurity athletes" and leaders.Endicott-Popovsky has taught at the UW for ten years; before she joined the university, she worked as a consultant in I.T. architecture and project management. One of Endicott-Popovsky’s research interests is “forensic readiness,” helping ensure that digital evidence of cybersecurity attacks is airtight enough to be admissible in court. Much of her current work also centers on the pedagogy of cybersecurity instruction and transitioning military into academics. She does much of this work with Dr. Viatcheslav Popovsky, her husband and a renowned sport educator, as they apply Russian pedagogical techniques (like those used on Russian Olympians) to create “cybersecurity athletes.”

With so many of her students taking courses later in life, after perhaps having had a difficult time with academics in the past, this background in teaching techniques is crucial. “You have to take a very thoughtful approach to what content you’re going to deliver, how much you’re going to deliver, and when,” she says.

Endicott-Popovsky has created or advised on the design of 23 cybersecurity courses and several master’s degrees. With this experience, she is very excited about the work the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity and UW Tacoma are doing.

“What we’re offering is exemplary,” she says. “What we’re going to be able to do with students to help them prepare for careers that are waiting for them is exciting.”

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.

Written by: 
Abby Rhinehart / October 15, 2014
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Media Relations, 253-692-4536, johnbjr@uw.edu