Washington State University Professor Bernard Van Wie points to data breaches at banks and other cyberattacks to illustrate the importance of cybersecurity in today’s world.

So to help train the next line of defense, WSU will use a two-year, $1.5 million Department of Defense grant to establish the Northwest Virtual Institute for Cybersecurity Education and Research.

The cyberoperations research and teaching center, set to start this fall, will offer four-year degree and certificate programs to students, as well as ROTC and Department of Defense-skilled civilian workers, in computer science and other majors in cyberbasics, -operations and -defense.

WSU will co-lead the institute alongside the University of Idaho, Central Washington University, Montana State University and Columbia Basin College.

“There are centers for academic excellence in cyberdefense, but cyberoperations goes a little deeper and goes a little bit beyond cyberdefense in terms of depth of understanding in computer science, for example,” said Van Wie, a chemical engineering professor at WSU.

Van Wie, who has led the effort to establish the new cyberoperations institute, said the $1.5 million grant came from the Air Force Military Command’s Virtual Institutes for Cyber and Electromagnetic Spectrum Research and Employ program’s Virtual Cyber Institutes Initiative.

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He said WSU applied for the funding after a call for proposals from the Department of Defense through the Griffiss Institute.

“Cybersecurity is a pressing national challenge right now,” said Olusola Adesope, associate dean for research and external funding. “WSU’s strategically positioned to be a major player in tackling that grand challenge.”

The institute will employ coursework, workshops, summer cybersecurity internships and a weekly seminar series.

In addition, Van Wie said the senior design capstone project may involve partnering with companies, such as the Pullman-based Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, for more practical applications.

The center’s doctoral trainee cybersecurity researchers will mentor undergraduates, while graduate master’s and doctoral trainees will obtain advanced cyberoperations certificates.

“A large fraction of students in the computer science area are going to want this because the civilian industry is needed as much as anybody else,” Van Wie said. “The ROTC had to be a component because [the Department of Defense] is funding it; it makes sense to them. But the more people we have trained in this that are supporters of U.S. interests, the better.”

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Beyond student offerings, a key program component will be showing instructors best practices in teaching cybersecurity subjects, Adesope said.

“Our instructors will be exposed to different, well-proven best practices in teaching,” he said. “This will have such a long-lasting impact first on instructors and indirectly on students.”

Courses for WSU students will be available at the Pullman and Tri-Cities campuses. There will also be a few offerings not available at WSU that students can either take in person or virtually at the University of Idaho, Van Wie said.

“We’ll build this network,” Van Wie said, “and we hope that both the undergraduate component, as well as the research component — which would involve graduate students — will continue and that it will inform collaborations between institutions on a research level.”