SEAS adds degree in cybersecurity

Emeritus professor Lance Hoffman said adding security to computer systems is like building safety into automobiles: innovation often comes in response to mishaps.

As the government makes investments to support more cybersecurity workers, Hoffman said demand has grown because “most systems today are like the security in most automobiles in 1940, before they had seat belts even – let alone airbags.”

Almost 20 years after Hoffman helped start the University’s first cybersecurity research institute, calls from private contractors and federal agencies for more specialists to protect computer systems are echoing into academics. The School of Engineering and Applied Science will offer students a headstart toward a career in cybersecurity when it launches a master of science degree in cybersecurity next fall.

The program, announced March 19, will be one of the country’s few degrees in cybersecurity, which are also offered at nearby University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Carnegie Mellon University.

The degree will prepare students to help protect not only basic computer information but also privacy violations and online identity theft, computer science department chair Abdou Youssef said.

He said about 70 students have expressed interest in applying, but the program would enroll only about 15 students next year. Youssef expects it will grow annually until the program stabilizes at a class of about 60 students.

“D.C. is one of the largest and most vibrant high-tech areas in the United States and the world,” Youssef said. “Professionals are in need of cybersecurity expertise to advance their career and help the private sector and the government secure their assets and protect against cyber attacks.”

Students will follow a 30-credit curriculum in the program, which has the same core courses as the school’s advanced computer science program, but includes security courses like cryptography and computer network defense. Most of the courses will include hands-on work outside of the classroom. One class tests students on their ability to prevent attacks where professors send viruses and other threats to students’ computers.

The master’s program will initially include six professors, Youssef said.

The department began exploring the creation of a master’s degree in fall 2010 – the same year the nation’s top defense brass began highlighting a shortage in cybersecurity workers. Support from engineering school Dean David Dolling, Provost Steven Lerman and Vice President for Research Leo Chapula gave the proposal momentum, Youssef said.

GW has also already gotten on board with the federal government’s aid for future cybersecurity workers through the CyberCorps program, which provides full scholarships for study to undergraduates, master’s and doctoral students in computer science.

Joseph Mathews has worked in the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory focusing on cybersecurity since he graduated from GW as a computer engineering major in 2004, and said his career was launched in the burgeoning field after pursuing a masters degree through the Department of Defense scholarship program.

“GW is one of the few universities offering this program in this specific field. Most universities want you to do something traditional with only some computer security,” Mathews said. “By focusing the curriculum around cybersecurity, students will have a fundamental knowledge in one base curriculum.”

Applications have opened and are tentatively due by May 1.

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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