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Cyber welfare: State budget funds new cybersecurity degree programs at Eastern Washington University

President Joe Biden warned U.S. companies late last month to shore up their defenses given the threat of potential Russian cyberattacks.

State lawmakers similarly have cyberdefense in focus, allocating approximately $18 million of a $64.1 billion supplemental budget package toward higher education cybersecurity training programs. The budget was signed into law Thursday by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Included is $2.81 million for Eastern Washington University to create a master’s degree and two bachelor’s degree programs centered on cybersecurity. The spending plan also includes just over $2 million to establish a bachelor’s in cybersecurity operations at Washington State University.

“Certainly, when you hear President Biden talking about being prepared for cyberattacks on the west, we are a high-tech economy. Everything we do is technology-based,” said David Bowman, dean of EWU’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. “It’s something that we’ve taken for granted, and it’s time to recognize that we, as a society, have a need to protect ourselves and to create the workforce that can help manage that threat, and that’s why this exists.”

WSU’s cybersecurity operations degree will be a part of the College of Engineering and Architecture as available on the Pullman, Tri-Cities and Everett campuses, said David Wasson, a WSU spokesman. Additional details were unavailable at this time.

Meanwhile, EWU administrators are aiming to launch the new undergraduate programs for this fall.

The university, a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense as designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, offers a bachelor’s in computer science with a cyberdefense minor. Stu Steiner, assistant professor of computer science, said EWU is already good at teaching students how to patch systems, check for problems and wall out threats.

Cybersecurity experts classify defense specialists into what’s called a “blue team.” Opposite to that is the “red team,” cyberoperations specialists that exploit and reverse-engineer ways into a system to find problems the blue team needs to patch.

Steiner said the new degree programs will allow the university to better teach students how to attack and exploit systems. Red team jobs include penetration testers (more commonly known as “pen testers”) and identity access managers.

Cybersecurity and cyberoperations both have their place in military applications.

“What we want to make is to let the student choose what they want to do. Do they want to be attacking or do they want to be defending?” Steiner said. “The interesting thing is to be a good defender, you have to understand how a good attacker attacks.”

The difference between a cyberoperations degree and a computer science degree, with a cyberoperations specialization, will be a matter of electives.

Steiner said the computer science degree will require a set of seven very specific cyberoperations electives. The cyberoperations degree will similarly require those courses, while students will also take an additional set of electives in computer science or cybersecurity.

“If you have the bachelor’s of science in computer science degree, you’re just a little bit more well-rounded so you could do computer science if you wanted to and you can go deep into cyberoperations,” he said. “If you have just this cyberoperations bachelor’s degree, you’re specialized in cybersecurity, which isn’t a bad thing because there are a lot of jobs out there in cybersecurity.”

The professional science master’s degree, meanwhile, is designed as a “stackable certificate” program.

That means a student could go through the entire program or enough just to earn standalone certificates in a cybersecurity specialization, such as machine learning or forensics banking, Bowman said. The program will offer six unique certificates to start.

Bowman and Steiner said they hope to launch the master’s program in fall 2023.

“We already have an existing master’s degree in computer science,” Bowman said. “This gives more of a professional focus.”

EWU’s new degree programs will help meet student demand, offer more faculty research opportunities and better build a program “that is preparing students for this high-need field,” Bowman said.

Bowman said the department plans to hire additional tenure-track professors, teaching faculty, staff members and a number of graduate students as well as build out the cybersecurity lab systems to increase research capacity. Whether that will require a physical expansion remains to be seen.

“For me, it’s all about the students,” Steiner said. “Right now, it’s me running the ship by myself as director of the program and the teacher of all of the cybersecurity classes. This is going to allow us to expand those class offerings and really give the students a deeper hands-on experience than what they’re getting right now.”

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