New UIUC course to promote understanding of cybersecurity as a career

Masooda Bashir
Masooda Bashir, Associate Professor

Cyber risk is everywhere, so cyber defense abilities are naturally in high demand from employers. However, there aren't nearly enough job candidates available who have both the technical skills and the broader contextual understanding that today's cybersecurity positions require. Developing a stronger cybersecurity workforce has therefore become a national priority, and experts are looking for ways to get more students interested in this vitally important but often-misunderstood field. What can be done to fill the gap between needs and workforce capabilities?

Dominic Saebeler, senior associate director of the Information Trust Institute (ITI), is doing his part by introducing a new undergraduate course at UIUC: ENG 198 CYB, "Introduction to Cybersecurity," which is being offered for the first time in Fall 2021.

"[The class] is designed to introduce students to the concept of a heightened cyber awareness, the ideas behind trust, the existence of attack surfaces and attack vectors, [and] the world of active cyber defense," says Saebeler. "This course is a way to introduce undergraduate students to these challenges with the hope that many of them will consider pursuing cybersecurity-focused coursework, participating in research, and eventually positively impacting the marketplace in the way that is of [the] most interest to them."

The one-credit class has no prerequisites and is open to any interested undergraduates; freshmen and sophomores may get the greatest benefit, if it helps them modify their coursework plans for their remaining years of study. Saebeler will be the primary instructor, but there will also be guest speakers from the Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty, and iSchool Associate Professor Masooda Bashir, who co-initiated the vision for the course, will present some of the lectures.

Some iSchool students are among the Fall 2021 course enrollees. Bashir says that one advantage of the new course is that it allows iSchool and other UIUC students to learn about career paths in cybersecurity, in an appealing multidisciplinary format that includes societal and human aspects, without having the computer science background needed to take a 400-level security course—which until now has been the only option.

Bashir is PI and director of ITI's NSF-funded Illinois Cyber Security Scholars Program (ICSSP), which provides scholarships to cybersecurity-focused UIUC students in exchange for a commitment to work as a government security professional post-graduation. She notes that one benefit of the new course is that it will make underclassmen aware of such opportunities early enough to take advantage of them. "We hope that this would serve as one of the pathways to the scholarship and for students to learn all of the other UIUC opportunities that are there in security and privacy."

Cybersecurity education and workforce development are a core element of ITI's mission, but many of ITI's current workforce efforts are connected to its Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (CIRI), and they target audiences outside the university community. The new course, on the other hand, is for UIUC undergraduates, and ITI has even more student-oriented cybersecurity activities under development.

Saebeler says that "The new course is geared toward getting underclassmen interested in cybersecurity. A key message is, students may have a different idea of what cybersecurity encompasses. And they might have a very narrow understanding. If you ask a Computer Science student they might say, 'Oh, that's low-level stuff; I don't want to do that.' But there's a whole level of complexity that goes beyond that, and we're trying to expose them to lots of really fascinating, interesting aspects. Cybersecurity is more than just sitting at a screen watching logs and seeing if someone's trying to break into a network. So part of it is just adding that next layer of understanding."

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