Initiative broadens UAH engineering students’ exposure to cybersecurity

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Engineers who graduate from The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) will have broad exposure to industrial control systems cybersecurity within their fields of study under a new initiative.

Funded by a three-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the effort's overarching goal is to expose engineering students to cybersecurity beginning in their first-year common courses.

In the first phase, undergraduates will construct virtual models of industrial control systems in different engineering disciplines, says Dr. Tommy Morris, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of UAH's Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education (CCRE).

Our innovation is to teach cybersecurity relevant to systems they are already learning, so we get two lessons for the price of one.

Dr. Tommy Morris
Director, Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education

Dr. Morris is the principal investigator (PI) for the grant, along with co-PIs Dr. Krishnan Chittur, interim chair of the Dept. of Chemical and Materials Engineering; Dr. Farbod Fahimi, associate professor in the Dept. of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Dr. Rhonda Gaede, associate professor in the Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Dr. Hongyu Zhou, assistant professor in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Senior design teams advised by the professors in the four disciplines will build four virtual industrial control systems. The systems will then be used by doctoral students in the CCRE who are doing cybersecurity research. There, the systems developed by the undergraduates will serve as test beds to research the impact of cyber attacks against industrial control systems, develop cyber defenses to detect and defeat the attacks, and to gather data and evaluate solutions.

"The undergraduate students will build a distillation tower used in chemical refineries for the Dept. of Chemical and Materials Engineering, a robotic arm used on a factory floor for the Dept. of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, a mass damper for the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering and an electric generator for the Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering," says Dr. Morris.

Dr. Morris and his doctoral students will develop cybersecurity classroom lectures and lab exercises and teach them in junior-level classes in each affected discipline, exposing engineers from the other engineering disciplines to the cybersecurity problem. Labs and lectures will be based on the systems developed for each discipline, so the educational context is familiar and contributes to students' education in their discipline.

"How can you add cybersecurity to an engineering department and, by doing so, take away content more relevant to the degree itself? You can't," says Dr. Morris. "Our innovation is to teach cybersecurity relevant to systems they are already learning, so we get two lessons for the price of one."

Part of Dr. Gaede's involvement will be to help evaluate the curriculum and its effectiveness.

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Dr. Tommy Morris is the principal investigator for the grant.

Michael Mercier | UAH

"I will be working with the various faculty from the College of Engineering that teach the common first year classes, FYE 101 ENG - 'First Year Experience for Engineering Students' and ENG 101 - 'Introduction to Computing for Engineers,' to introduce cybersecurity principles into those classes," Dr. Gaede says. "I will also be providing support for the evaluation of this project in the two areas of student understanding and in dissemination of the products of this project."

Assessment metrics will be used to evaluate student learning and understanding. Dr. Gaede will gather that data and will be responsible for outreach efforts.

"We have identified some metrics for assessing the broader impact of this project," Dr. Gaede says. "One example is distributing virtual industrial control systems (ICS) to 30 schools by year three of the program."

Students in Dr. Gaede's Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering will gain deeper understanding of the industrial control systems for which they may be tasked to provide software, she said.

"This project is very timely as indicated by the commercials we see from GE talking about being both industrial and digital," says Dr. Gaede. "That's what we're trying to achieve here."

The project advances some of UAH's larger educational goals, as well, Dr. Gaede says.

"I think this project folds nicely into the university's Quality Enhancement Plan of Collaborative Learning and epitomizes the interdisciplinary type of education that our accrediting body, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc. (ABET), is seeking."

Dr. Fahimi says the Dept. of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering knows robotic cybersecurity is vital to industry, where the number of industrial robotic manipulators in use is rising. The tasks and the motions of industrial robotic manipulators are programmed on desktop computers, normally connected to the Internet via a local area network.

"During operation of the robots, the desktop computer commands the series of programmed motion commands to the motion control hardware of the robot, which is connected to the desktop computer via a serial or Ethernet connection," Dr. Fahimi says. "If the desktop computer is hacked, malicious software can redefine motion commands for the robot, causing it to misbehave. That can lead to property damage, personal injuries, or loss of lives."


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