Partnership Strengthens Cyber Security Pipeline
LAUREN MACIAS-CERVANTES | May 23, 2017 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
UTEP and El Paso Community College students enrolled in the S-STEM program stand outside the Chemistry and Computer Science Building with Christian Servin, Ph.D., left; Salamah Salamah, Ph.D., third from right; and Claudia Salas, right. The students know their skills will be in high demand, and many aspire to work for the CIA or NSA protecting our nation's networks from terrorists.
Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications
There is no question that cyber security is a concern and a priority in today's world. Technology has become more advanced, allowing us to have online access remotely and 24/7 in the palm of our hands. We can communicate and conduct business with a few keystrokes or a series of simple finger taps. While these additions have improved our accessibility, they've arguably increased the threat of potential attacks in our virtual and daily lives.
The University of Texas at El Paso and California State University, Stanislaus have formed a consortium with their community college counterparts, El Paso Community College and Merced College, to help address this national concern. The group is utilizing a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation over five years to increase enrollment and diversity in cyber security degree programs through a scholarship program called S-STEM. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
"Everyone needs security integrated within their networks and information systems, and equally important, everyone needs professionals who are able to develop and implement protective measures for these systems vulnerable to attacks," said Claudia Casas, S-STEM manager at UTEP. "The demand for cyber security experts with excellent ethical values is high."
El Paso Community College sophomore Rocio Cardona is one of the scholarship recipients.
"This scholarship and all the opportunities that it represents means better educational preparation, which will help me to succeed in the field," Cardona said. "I think that the financial help will allow me to put aside the need of a job, allowing me to focus more on my studies … and I'll have the time to attend all the professional workshops, competitions and research that come with this scholarship."
Through the S-STEM partnership, students interested in studying computer science receive assistance for their first year at their community college, then transfer to the corresponding university. Professor and Chair of the UTEP Computer Science Department Ann Gates, Ph.D., said collaborating with community colleges is critical in the industry with the current demand in cyber security and the need for diversity in that skilled workforce.
Students funded at EPCC and UTEP will follow the Secure Cyber-Systems track at UTEP and complete a B.S. degree in computer science.
"We recognize that in order to increase the number of students in STEM fields, especially computer science, we have to look at the pathways to a four-year college like UTEP," Gates explained. "We really feel it's important to build these tracks and help the students thrive when they come to UTEP. We want to get them excited by increasing student engagement early in the program."
At the core of the S-STEM program is competency in cyber security, and it is enhanced by professional development skills like interviewing, team communication, marketing and critical thinking, as well as involvement in professional internships. Funded students will participate in extracurricular activities, such as workshops and competitions that will enhance their knowledge in cyber security and enhance their professional skills.
"What we hear a lot nationally in the industry is that students who graduate with a computer science degree are technically good students, but it's the soft skills that a lot of the time are lacking," said Salamah Salamah, Ph.D., software engineering program director and the S-STEM grant lead.
UTEP Junior Elsa Gonzalez-Aguilar knows there is demand in the cyber security industry, but knows preparing to work in that field will not be easy.
"I am interested in cyber security because I find it to be one of the most challenging areas in computer science, requiring me to think both logically and creatively," Gonzalez-Aguilar said. "It also requires me to keep learning new things every day, and thus allowing me to grow as a professional."
As a UTEP alumnus, Christian Servin, Ph.D., associate professor of computer science at EPCC, understands the value of the S-STEM program on multiple levels.
"As a graduate from the computer science department at UTEP, I was lucky to work in many different research areas with many outstanding faculty," Servin said. "Several of them were in the cyber-security area. As a former EPCC student, I was also aware of challenges that students have as freshmen and in the field of pre-engineering … I also have learned about the current demand in the computing fields. These experiences have helped to construct pathways between different entities in the academic area, this includes the S-STEM Scholarships and cyber-security areas. I know these partnerships between UTEP and EPCC are pillars for future collective efforts that will impact future generations in computing."
Future industry experts enrolled in S-STEM are already thinking about the impact they'll have.
UTEP sophomore Eduardo Herrera aspires to work for the CIA or National Security Agency defending the nation against cyber attacks.
"I was always interested in how technology works, especially in what you can do with it," Herrera said. "I found cyber security fascinating because of how people find back doors to the technology to make it do what they desire. I see hacking as a kind of power in a world full of technology. Unfortunately, there are people in the world with intensions to do harm using this capability. My goal is to work for the government to protect information, not letting it fall in the wrong hands."
El Paso Community College sophomore Briana Sanchez is looking forward to continuing her studies at UTEP and has great aspirations herself for developing future industry experts.
"I hope I will get the chance to open a recreation center in a low-income community where I can teach and introduce young minds to this field or any computer science field," Sanchez said. "This degree has already impacted my life so much that I would like to give back to the community."
Scholarship recipients can receive funding for up to four years. The S-STEM application for fiscal year 2017-18 will close on June 26, 2017.
For more details, students should visit www.cs.utep.edu/s-stem-program/.