Degree in cybersecurity gets underway

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About 100 students are expected to enroll in Washington State University’s new undergraduate cybersecurity degree program slated to start this fall.

With $2 million provided by the state of Washington to get the program started, the degree aims to meet burgeoning demand for computer scientists with expertise in cybersecurity. 

“There is very strong support from the state in adding to the cyber security workforce,” said Assefaw Gebremedhin, associate professor in WSU’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science who worked to develop the curriculum. “There are many unfilled jobs, so there is huge demand across industries and sectors, and the training for it is lagging behind in a very serious way. Demand for this expertise will only continue to grow.”

An increasing number of companies use cloud services in their operations, and the number of cyberattack incidents have been steadily increasing. Data theft of critical information and ransomware that harms computer systems are challenges for companies across the world.  The number of jobs for cybersecurity experts is expected to grow by 35% in the next decade with more than 19,000 available positions every year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median salary for information security analysts was more than $100,000 in 2021. At WSU, all computer science majors are now required to take at least one cybersecurity course.

WSU’s new undergraduate degree program will be available on the Pullman, Tri-Cities, and Everett campuses with some courses live streamed via video conferencing. The program will emphasize the high-demand area of cyberoperations, the sophisticated engineering anticipates and plans for cyber challenges in addition to defending from attacks. In addition to the program’s foundational computer science courses, classes will provide experiential learning with a variety of hands-on projects, covering topics on security related to data, software, hardware, connection, cyber systems, and cybersecurity threats.

Students will learn about real-world cybersecurity problems in several industries and be encouraged to participate in regional and national competitions that ask students to solve cyber challenges.

The School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has hired six new faculty, and the program will offer 11 required and elective cybersecurity courses. Last year, a Department of Defense (DOD) grant led to the establishment of a WSU-led cybersecurity education and research program that is training ROTC and DOD-skilled civilian workers in cyber basics, operations, and defense. Experience in that program helped to shape the curriculum and courses, said Gebremedhin.

The program also offers interdisciplinary opportunities, said Venera Arnaoudova, associate professor in the school who also worked to develop the curriculum. In addition to the required cybersecurity course for all computer science majors, elective cybersecurity courses are open to a variety of majors within the school, including software engineering. 

 “It’s a very fast growing and multidisciplinary field that requires understanding of other subdomains of computer science,” said Arnaoudova. “Because the goal is to defend systems, we always have to be thinking one or two steps ahead of the attackers, so that makes it challenging and at the same time exciting.”

The curriculum committee consulted with industry experts to develop a useful curriculum and gathered feedback on needed skills and qualifications that will be helpful in the workplace.

“There is a large demand and a need for having a strong educational program,” said Gebremedhin. “The timing was really good for WSU to step in and fill that gap.”

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