Commonwealth Cyber Initiative awards experiential learning grants to faculty, students across Virginia

By Kathy Acosta

Commonwealth Cyber InitiativeEarlier this year, the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative sought proposals for scalable pilot programs for experiential learning from member institutions across Virginia that would provide students with industry experience and enhance their skillsets to better prepare them to enter the cybersecurity workforce.

“Virginia’s higher education institutes provide a variety of experiential learning opportunities for our students who are graduating with exceptional knowledge paired with interactive, hands-on learning experiences in the field, lab, or with industry,” said Luiz DaSilva, the executive director of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative. “An additional goal of the grant program is to support Virginia institutions and scale up existing learning-in-action programs to provide students with additional opportunities.”

The program supports Virginia’s Commonwealth Cyber Initiative that aims to create a statewide ecosystem of excellence in cyber-physical systems and serve as a catalyst for research, innovation, talent development, and commercialization of technologies at the intersection of security, autonomy, and data.

A panel of faculty from CCI member institutions reviewed the submissions and awarded funding for six experiential learning projects to faculty and their students across the state:

Cyber startups: Pilot program for novel experiential learning

  • Startup companies are an important part of the Virginia cybersecurity ecosystem and they need cybersecurity talent, but are often limited in hiring because they don’t have adequate financial resources and the cost of labor is high. By offering opportunities for students to obtain experiential learning at cybersecurity startups with a focus on innovation, this program will foster creativity and entrepreneurship in students and connect startups with potential future employees. Participating students will not only develop their technical skills with real-world experience, but will also gain valuable soft skills, such as critical thinking and communication, that are essential in the dynamic startup environment. Furthermore, being part of the cybersecurity innovation ecosystem during their college education will encourage students to take advantage of these connections to stay in Virginia once they graduate and begin their professional careers. Lead faculty are Karen L. Livingston, associate director of entrepreneurship programs at George Mason University; Diane R. Murphy, professor of information management at Marymount University; and Sarah M. Spalding, interim associate dean of the School of Business and Technology at Marymount University.

Experiential learning through the Commonwealth STEM Industry Internship program

  • In this project, the Virginia Space Grant Consortium will expand on its existing Commonwealth STEM Industry Internship program to build and grow state-wide experiential learning opportunities for Virginia students majoring in cyber-physical systems, cybersecurity, autonomous systems, and data. The existing infrastructure will facilitate the connections between Virginia industry and STEM students who will develop professional and essential job-readiness skills they will need in their careers. When students graduate they will have established relationships with Virginia companies and be more likely to stay in the commonwealth as they enter the workforce. This project is led by Mary Sandy, Virginia Space Grant Consortium director, Old Dominion University.

AI-Security Living Lab Experience (AISLE)

  • This program will offer multidisciplinary teams of undergraduate and high school students the opportunity to work together on problems of direct relevance to the development of secure and trustworthy artificial intelligence, a growing field with a high demand for talent. AISLE will take place over five consecutive Saturday mornings at George Mason University and five additional consecutive Saturday mornings at James Madison University. Each five-Saturday period will have a dedicated theme, such as cybercrime, finance cybersecurity, health data security, cybersecurity in transportation, or detection of cyberthreats that will be decided in collaboration with industry partners. The program is envisioned as a group of project-based learning activities, rather than a hackathon. Lead faculty are Nektaria Tryfona, executive director of digital innovation and strategy at George Mason University and director of the Mason DataLab; Kamaljeet Sanghera, executive director of STEM outreach and associate professor of engineering at George Mason University; and Samy El-Tawab, associate professor of engineering at James Madison University.

Training in the integration of cyber physical systems and security

  • Graduate students are a critical component of the pipeline for cyber talent, especially in fields like cyber physical system security. In this project, researchers at the University of Virginia will adapt three graduate-level cyber physical systems courses with associated hands-on labs that can be adopted by universities throughout the commonwealth. The courses will address real-world industry needs and problems, based on input from an established industrial advisory board, and will feature workshops on verbal and written communication, leadership opportunities through group projects, and sessions on ethics and entrepreneurship. The course, Signal Processing, Machine Learning and Control, will be taught by John A. Stankovic, the BP America Professor of Computer Science. Formal Methods, Safety, and Security will be taught by Lu Feng, an assistant professor of computer science. Mobile and Internet of Things Security and Privacy will be taught by Yian Tian, an assistant professor of computer science.

Drone racing competition – learning, defending, and attacking

  • Drones can accomplish diverse tasks, from delivering packages to military reconnaissance. Advancements in drone technology have spawned an entirely new competitive high-speed sport with a first-person view that involves piloting a drone against other racers through a course with several checkpoints. This project will build multidisciplinary teams of students who will compete in a series of “battle” drone-based AI competitions. The competitions will increase in course difficulty, include local companies for mentoring, and evolve to include cybersecurity challenges such as positioning communications systems degradation, jamming, and adversarial AI. Students will be encouraged to understand the existing infrastructure and to find ways to increase their chances of surviving and defeating their opponents. The project will be led by Jonathan Black, professor of aerospace and ocean engineering and director of the Aerospace and Ocean Systems Laboratory in the Virginia Tech Hume Center for National Security and Technology.

Data poisoning and satellite reconnaissance: Bridging application and education

  • Convolutional neural networks have been extensively used to assess road networks using imagery collected in two ways: on the ground via smartphone and aerially via satellites or drones. Imagery collected on the ground is largely used for road quality or as input into self-driving algorithms, whereas imagery collected by satellite or airborne systems is largely used to identify the growth or change in road networks in inaccessible areas. In this project, students will work with William & Mary faculty and external industry partners to design a data collection app and construct a convolutional neural network to predict road roughness across Virginia, incorporating data from ground and aerial imagery. The second part of the project will be a cybersecurity competition in which student teams will explore ways to identify potential malicious changes to imagery and ways to mitigate the impact of such “data poisoning.” Lead faculty are Daniel Runfola, assistant professor of computer science; Anthony Stefanidis, professor of computer science; and Peter Kemper, associate professor of computer science.

Through a multimillion-dollar investment from the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative is a state-wide ecosystem of innovation and excellence in cyber-physical systems with an emphasis on trust and security.

In March, Luiz A. DaSilva joined CCI as its inaugural executive director, leading the network of higher education and industry experts to build an ecosystem of cyber-related research, education, and engagement that will position Virginia as a world leader in cybersecurity and cyber-physical systems.

The network is composed of four CCI Regional Nodes, encompassing Central Virginia, Coastal Virginia, Northern Virginia, and Southwest Virginia and a hub in Arlington.


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