On Post

DoD Grant Brings Cyber Defense Laboratory to Post

Mallory Hall exterior

Mallory Hall, home to VMI’s Department of Computer and Information Sciences, will soon house VMI’s cyber defense lab.—VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

In mid-September, VMI’s Department of Computer and Information Sciences took a major step toward a new initiative when Institute leaders signed an agreement for a grant award with the Department of Defense to establish a cyber defense laboratory on post.

The agreement, which will bring $1.45 million to VMI in the first year of funding, establishes VMI as a participant in the DoD Senior Military Colleges Cyber Leadership Development Program.

“The main goal of this effort is the creation and execution of an integrated SMC DoD Cyber Institutes program composed of individual cyber institutes and centers at each of the six senior military colleges working jointly to meet the talent and workforce needs of the DoD Cyber Mission Force,” said Col. Mohamed Eltoweissy, Ph.D., head of CIS and the grant’s principal investigator. In addition to VMI, the senior military colleges are The Citadel, Virginia Tech, the University of North Georgia, Norwich University, and Texas A&M.

Eltoweissy explained that “this initiative will complement and strengthen VMI’s cybersecurity capacity, expand existing cybersecurity laboratory infrastructure, further innovation in cybersecurity education and research, and advance the multidisciplinary cybersecurity minor, which was established in the fall of 2017.”

To that end, VMI’s grant from the DoD involves not only the CIS, but also the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Department of International Studies and Political Science, and the Center for Leadership and Ethics. Eltoweissy indicated that other departments on post will be integral to the effort to cover the different facets of cybersecurity and better prepare cadets for DoD Cyber Mission Force work roles, including data scientists, reverse engineers, vulnerability researchers, and information research integrators in cyber operations.

As part of this grant, VMI will establish its cyber defense laboratory in the spring of 2021. The lab comprises two interrelated programs: The leadership-integrated competency development program and the immersive and experiential learning program. The vision is to provide premier cybersecurity leadership education, increasing the number of the next generation of leaders capable and ready to protect our nation from existing and emerging cybersecurity challenges. A priority for the lab will be to boost the representation of underrepresented groups in the cybersecurity workforce.

Right now, the department head noted, there’s an effort underway to revamp some courses and add others in preparation for establishing the lab. Proposed courses include CIS 370, Leading Ethically in the Virtual World, and EE 417, Reverse Engineering. Another major area of focus will be experiential learning via internships and projects.

“We want to better respond to career requirements and skill sets,” said Eltoweissy. As the lab is created, so will be a new artificial intelligence-enabled educational software and hardware platform that links professional careers to educational modules for immersive experiential learning, to be designed and built by VMI faculty, staff, and cadets with collaboration from the SMCs.

But VMI’s cyber initiative isn’t just about software and hardware, ransomware, and malware. Not surprisingly, it’s also about preparing the next generation of cyber leaders.

“VMI is a premier leadership school,” Eltoweissy commented. “We want to develop cyber leaders.”

With this goal in mind, there will be unique leadership and learning opportunities for selected cadets. Plans call for 15 rising 2nd Class cadets to be selected as “cyber captains” each academic year. These cadets will receive DoD Cyber Captains Scholarships.

All of those selected will be required to enroll in the cybersecurity minor, complete an internship, actively participate in the Cyber Club, and receive a designated professional certification. These cadets will also serve as teaching and technical assistants to help faculty, staff, and cadets with cybersecurity issues.

Outreach to the community and attempts to diversify the future pool of cybersecurity workers will be critical components of the program as well. Summer camps for students in grades 8-12 will be offered, along with a residential camp for girls only.

The cyber defense laboratory will also allow VMI to foster deeper relationships with its fellow SMCs. Eltoweissy foresees much collaboration among the schools, including having guest speakers at one school broadcast to all the others, and cybersecurity competitions with the other SMCs and service academies. Joint experiments and projects in education and research are also among the possibilities.

“We hope that the whole will be greater than the sum of the individual institutions,” said Eltoweissy. “We think this is a first step toward more collaboration among the SMCs.”

  • Mary Price VMI Communications and Marketing