College of Applied Science and Technology affirms prestigious NSA designation

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The College of Applied Science and Technology recently affirmed its designation as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations, or CAE-CO. The designation is awarded by the National Security Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

In a world increasingly filled with internet connectivity at the touch of a finger, the threat of cybersecurity risks grows with each technological innovation. In the face of such a threat, the staff and faculty at the University of Arizona College of Applied Science and Technology are training the next generation of cyber professionals to secure and protect the nation's data, communications and privacy.

For its efforts on that front, the college's cyber operations program recently renewed its designation as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations, or CAE-CO. The designation is awarded by the National Security Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense. The National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity is a program managed by the NSA's National Cryptologic School in partnership with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Institute of Standards and a variety of other federal agencies. The program was developed to create and maintain cybersecurity programs at community colleges, colleges and universities.

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The college's CyberApolis platform allows students to work in a secure and controlled classroom to gain hands-on experience identifying, mitigating and responding to threats in a secure and controlled environment.

College of Applied Science and Technology

The Center of Academic Excellence program awards designations in cyber defense, research and operations, each of which is based on the academic offerings and focuses of the individual institution. More than 400 schools across the country are certified in cyber defense, while 83 institutions have earned the graduate-level research designation. UArizona is one of only 20 schools to earn a designation in cybersecurity operations, which places the program in rarefied company, joining institutions such as the U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. Naval Academy and Naval Postgraduate School. The university also maintains designations in cyber defense and cyber research.

The college, headquartered at the branch campus in Sierra Vista, Arizona, first earned the prestigious cyber operations designation in 2018 and is required to reapply every five years.

"This designation shows that the university has the most technical, the most advanced, cybersecurity curriculum in the country," said Jason Denno, founder and director of the cyber operations program. "When I came to the university in 2016, I wanted to create the No. 1 program in the nation. I did an analysis of the most important requirements for cybersecurity, and the CAE-CO requirements were it. Those are the 'cyber-Jedi' for the nation."

Becoming a "cyber-Jedi" starts with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Cyber Operations, for which the college offers three fields of study: an engineering track with a security focus, a defense and forensics track, and a cyber law and policy track that combines the technical aspects of the other programs with additional legal and policy instruction. Programs are provided online, with in-person options, and are designed to equip students with the technological and interdisciplinary skills needed to overcome the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which represents the intersection of the physical, digital and biological worlds.

While other programs offer hybrid learning environments and prepare students for the challenges of an increasingly online future, what sets the college apart from its peers is the hands-on work done by its students in a virtual city called CyberApolis. A purpose-built learning environment for cyber operations and open-source intelligence, CyberApolis is a living, synthetic world inhabited by over 15,000 virtual "personas" operated by artificial intelligence.

"We built a synthetic world that looks and feels exactly like the internet," Denno said. "These personas email each other, browse the web and conduct business transactions with over 100 different companies. They have bank accounts, they leave social media posts, comments on news stories – they do everything normal humans do."

The virtual learning environment is central to the cyber operations curriculum. CyberApolis acts as a secure and controlled classroom for students to develop their cybersecurity skills without exposing them to the risks associated with performing the same activities on the open internet. The platform can simulate various cyberattack scenarios, which allows students to gain hands-on experience identifying, mitigating and responding to threats in a secure and controlled environment.

Outside of cyber operations, the college offers a Bachelor of Applied Science in Applied Computing with emphases in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, software development and more. Students can also earn a Bachelor of Science in Administration of Justice, which prepares them to work in federal, state and local law enforcement, public safety, corrections, courtroom systems, the U.S. military, immigration and customs enforcement, social service and human rights organizations, and various related professions.

The college also offers bachelor's degrees in government and public service, human services, organizational leadership and regional commerce, and intelligence and information operations – each of which incorporates cyber components into its programming.

"Our catchphrase, which perfectly captures the mission statement, is 'future-focused, career-ready,'" said Nicol Rae, the college’s acting dean. "The college was created around that theme. This is a Fourth Industrial Revolution, 21st century-oriented college. The National Center of Academic Excellence designation helps us expand our research work and contract work for the federal government. We are very well-placed to continue to grow, and not just in terms of student enrollments and degrees."

Once known as UA South, the College of Applied Science and Technology first opened its doors in 2019 under the guidance of then-interim dean Linda Denno, now associate dean of faculty and academic affairs.

Students enrolled at the Sierra Vista location began earning Bachelor of Applied Science degrees in 2002, and administration saw the potential in focusing academic offerings on the burgeoning cyber world. What started as a handful of applied science students has grown to over 3,600 students, with more than 700 first-year student applicants for the upcoming fall semester.

"We focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and human-computer interaction," Linda Denno said. "We wanted to emphasize what cyber can bring to the table, and we used the cyber expertise that we have in this college to differentiate our curriculum from a more traditional political science or traditional business curriculum."

The college recently started accepting applications for a new Master of Science in Cyber and Information Operations program, allowing students to continue their cyber education after earning an undergraduate degree. Undergraduate courses will be offered on the UArizona main campus beginning in the fall.