UCA's Cybersecurity Program Attracts Students, Business


Chris Maddox and John Black, in deep purple shirt, are UCA computer and cyber range specialists.
Chris Maddox and John Black, in deep purple shirt, are UCA computer and cyber range specialists. (Karen E. Segrave)

Enrollment in the University of Central Arkansas’ new bachelor’s degree program in cybersecurity grew from nine to 57 students in just one year, and the program has already helped convince one company to expand in Conway.

DXC Technology of Tyson, Virginia, announced in October that it will hire 1,200 people over the next four years at its offices in the Meadows Technology Park in Conway, which would bring total employment there to 1,650.

Company leadership cited at the announcement the pipeline of talent coming from nearby higher education institutions, specifically from UCA’s cybersecurity program, as the main reason DXC chose to expand in Conway.

In addition, the school’s complementary cyber range is fully operational now and being used by both college and K-12 students. A cyber range is a dedicated computer system that simulates a computer network. The students are using it to learn how to detect and fend off cyberattacks and how to anticipate unknown threats, without exposing an actual network to a breach.

UCA is also showing K-12 teachers how they can use the range to teach advanced information security courses.

“I attribute the popularity of the degree program and the range to increasing awareness of cyber threats,” Stephen Addison, dean of UCA’s College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics, told Arkansas Business. “Barely a week goes by without a news story appearing about cyber crime, cyber warfare or hackers. Most of these stories include information about the shortage of cyber professionals to combat such events. As a result, people are becoming more aware of new employment opportunities.”

He mentioned the DXC expansion, and said, “Other companies are talking to us and asking about the programs, so it creates a lot of interest and is, in general, very good for the state and for businesses in the state as well.”

Addison added that UCA intends to start teaching small businesses what they need to know about cybersecurity because most would not survive a cyberattack.

When the first UCA students declared themselves cybersecurity majors in fall 2018, it had only been a month since the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the degree program. “So the students who showed up were people who had heard by word of mouth,” Addison said, and having nine declared majors then “was amazing for no advertising.”

But at 57 students, the program now has more majors than some more mature programs have, he said, and that enrollment surpasses even the also fast-growing computer engineering program UCA launched a year earlier.

“This really is a good sign for the future. The students are really enthusiastic,” Addison said.

In addition, he said, UCA students have formed a cybersecurity club. Addison spoke at a recent meeting and was impressed by the turnout of about 40 people.

Chris Terry, a UCA junior, monitors inbound and outbound general network traffic on the cyber range to help combat cybercrime.
Chris Terry, a UCA junior, monitors inbound and outbound general network traffic on the cyber range to help combat cybercrime. (Karen E. Segrave)

Ismael Enriquez, another UCA junior, scouts out potential cyber threats.
Ismael Enriquez, another UCA junior, scouts out potential cyber threats. (Karen E. Segrave)

Other Schools Interested

Not only will UCA students benefit from the range; other colleges and universities are contemplating how to use it to enhance their own programs, Addison said. Teachers from Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia and Harding University in Searcy have visited it in person.

On the K-12 side, hundreds of students across the state have used the range, and eight modules have been developed to help teachers use it.

“What [modules] are is they take a particular topic and show you how you can use the range to actually experiment around that particular topic. … They’re the sort of things that you would use to develop a lesson plan,” Addison said. “This gives you all the technical content you can do on the range. You have to combine it with your text and other things to actually come up with a lesson plan, but it’s the technical basis.”

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The modules are being posted on the Arkansas Educational Television Network’s Arkansas IDEAS website, which provides Arkansas Department of Education-approved professional development and educational opportunities, plus training, to teachers.

Addison said UCA’s goal is to have all eight modules on the website by May. The school is on track to accomplish that, and at least three modules have been filmed, he said.

In addition, UCA is hosting workshops to present the modules to teachers. More than 20 teachers have attended those, he said.

Addison noted that K-12 classes can log into the range remotely to work on exercises, but some of the schools have chosen to make the trip to see the physical range on the UCA campus. He said that’s mostly because the range has a technician available to help students while they’re there, though the tech has been sent to K-12 schools as well.

The biggest users at the high school level have been Bryant and Vilonia schools, Addison said.

Stephen Addison, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Central Arkansas, is proud of the university’s cyber range, which he called an ideal tool for training students to fight cybercrime without putting real networks at risk.
Stephen Addison, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Central Arkansas, is proud of the university’s cyber range, which he called an ideal tool for training students to fight cybercrime without putting real networks at risk. (Karen E. Segrave)