National Science Foundation Grant Helps University Integrate AI Into Existing Cybersecurity Curricula

To better prepare the future cyber workforce, a multidisciplinary team of three researchers from the College of Engineering & Computing is studying the effectiveness of integrating artificial intelligence (AI) techniques into existing cybersecurity curricula through a $300,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award.

Today’s digital world is continuously evolving, with new applications, programs and smart devices that allow people to make payments or purchases with the touch of a button. Inevitably, this growth leads to an exponential increase in cyberattacks, computer-based vulnerabilities and other threats. 

Organizations rely heavily on cybersecurity teams to guard and secure their digital infrastructure. Most recently, there has been a technological shift to AI and machine learning. These systems and algorithms are being regarded as possible solutions to current cybersecurity challenges.

Monique Ross, assistant professor at Florida International University’s (FIU) School of Computing & Information Sciences (SCIS); Mark A. Finlayson, associate professor at SCIS; and Selcuk Uluagac, associate professor at the university’s School of Electrical, Computer & Enterprise Engineering, are combining their diverse expertise to contribute toward cybersecurity education and its research community, with a mission of broadening participation of underrepresented groups in the fields of AI and cybersecurity.

Ross, the principal investigator on the grant, explains there are challenges to inspiring students to pursue a career in AI or cybersecurity.

“These areas are already perceived as difficult areas of study, and they appeal to different types of students,” said Ross. “These challenges pose further obstacles for minority groups, that already face lasting hurdles, such as never having heard of cybersecurity as a career option or never seeing people like themselves in the field.” 

NSF’s EAGER supports exploratory work in its early stages that is considered high-risk and high-reward, involving radically different approaches and varying interdisciplinary perspectives. 

The high-risk of the FIU project lies in integrating AI into the existing cybersecurity curriculum and leveraging it to potentially increase diversity in the field, focusing primarily on Hispanic students.

The need to combine AI and cybersecurity is critical. According to NSF, AI techniques are expected to enhance cybersecurity efforts by assisting human system managers with automated monitoring, analysis and responses to adversarial attacks. Just like cybersecurity needs AI, AI models need cybersecurity defense to function effectively.

Uluagac has seen the shift to AI. “In the last five to six years, my research team, which specializes in cyber-physical security systems and the security of IoT devices, has never investigated a problem without leveraging machine learning or AI techniques in their publications and studies,” he said. “We are now incorporating machine learning and seeing improved results without having a strong knowledge base on the subject. This convergence will definitely benefit IoT, computer engineering and computer science students.” 

Through the two-year grant, the research team will conduct a systematic literature review to look at popular works published in the two areas. The team will then design adaptable AI modules that can be easily inserted into existing cybersecurity courses while remaining easily digestible for non-AI cybersecurity professors. The modules will also include the topics of machine learning and natural language processing, which are Finlayson’s area of expertise.

“Natural language processing has shown to increase the appeal of computer science in diverse populations,” Finlayson says.

The final phase is working closely with instructors to evaluate the effectiveness of these modules and see if the integration is culturally mindful and inclusive of a broader, more diverse student population. 

The project is supported by an initiative of NSF’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC) program, committed to fostering new collaborations between the fields of cybersecurity, AI and education.

Read more at Florida International University

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