Iowa State, Illinois to train cybersecurity workforce to protect regional infrastructure

11/4/2021

Iowa State University Communications

The nation's critical infrastructure powers our lights, communications, water plants, financial networks, and other systems that support our way of life. When cyber attacks take out these systems, it can take hours or even days to recover -- in part because of a lack of a highly trained workforce.

Led by Iowa State University, a new effort is underway to build a nine-state regional coalition that will equip the cyber workforce to better protect critical infrastructure from computer attacks. The coalition has been dubbed ReCIPE – Regional Coalition for Critical Infrastructure Protection, Education and Practice – by its organizers at Iowa State and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A two-year, $2 million grant from the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity, a part of the National Security Agency, supports the project.

The idea is for the universities and other coalition partners to work together to develop the region’s cyber defense talent.

photo of David Nicol
David Nicol

“Cyber defense takes a community”, said David M. Nicol, who holds the Herman M. Dieckamp Endowed Chair in Engineering and is director of the Information Trust Institute at Illinois. “This project brings together all the key organizations whose participation in cyber defense is essential, and with them identifies and addresses real-life needs in education and workforce development.”

The coalition, for example, expects to develop and provide hands-on training, realistic tabletop and testbed exercises, capstone design projects, cyber defense competitions and technical materials for students and professionals.

“Participating members of the current and emerging workforce will receive the most recent cybersecurity training to permit them to actively protect our infrastructure, utilities, industry, medical complexes and emergency services from increasing threat,” says a project summary.

A major coalition goal is to “strategically prepare emerging learners to step into roles prepared to make immediate impact on pressing issues in the region’s critical-infrastructure defense,” the summary says.

 Doug Jacobson, a University Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Iowa State University, director of the university’s Center for Cybersecurity Innovation and Outreach and the leader of ReCIPE, said the coalition’s initial focus will be on protecting the Midwest’s energy infrastructure, particularly electricity providers.

The region’s rural nature will be one of the coalition’s biggest challenges. There are many small energy providers throughout the region and each one needs cybersecurity know-how.

But it can be hard to attract enough professional talent to small towns and rural areas. And so the coalition will work to “grow our own,” said Jacobson, who noted that working together will be one of ReCIPE’s main ingredients for preparing well-trained cyberdefenders.

“We’re bringing all these people together to train and upskill the current workforce while working with students to create a new workforce,” Jacobson said. “By bringing us all together, we’ll see how we can all solve these problems.”