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Friends University Lab Prepares Cybersecurity Students For Ever-Evolving Threat Landscape

In the past six months, Harvey and Butler counties were the victims of cyberattacks that shut down their computer networks for a short time.

The incidents are a reminder that network security and backup systems are critically important for government agencies, businesses and organizations of all sizes.

Having access to experts with a deep understanding of cyber response practices and tools also helps.

In the last year, several college programs and a virtual cyber training lab launched in south-central Kansas to teach students how to disrupt and defeat cyber criminals. The region is considered “cutting edge” for its cybersecurity initiatives.  

At Friends University, the Intrust Bank Cybersecurity Laboratory looks like a computer lab. Several pods of desks with the latest computers and monitors line the room. A few 65-inch screens are mounted on walls.

But what you don’t see is the powerful cyber defense training platform that turns these workstations into a simulated security operations center. Friends Cybersecurity Program Director Jonathan Lanning says the lab replicates the entire internet in real-time.

“They have the ability to monitor all of the network traffic and see everything that comes into and out of their environment. And that makes it really exciting for everybody because they can see just what it feels like to be a professional doing this job someplace else,” Lanning says.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
Jonathan Lanning, right, is Friends' cybersecurity program director and assistant professor of cybersecurity. The lesson in his digital forensics investigation class involves extracting an image from a computer hard drive.

That functioning cyberspace makes this lab unique. Lanning says only two other U.S. universities have this kind of virtual training. He says students get experience in dealing with realistic threats and cyberattacks. They test network defense capabilities with the best tools available in the security industry.

“So what we have here is an opportunity for them to get their hands on the computers, to get their hands on the technology and to put it to use so that it makes more sense," Lanning says. "It feels real. When they get to apply those skills outside of this environment, they know what they're doing."

For Lanning’s class on digital forensic investigations, a table is set up at the front of the lab with a laptop and a desktop tower. This is the simulated forensic lab where the students will conduct their cyber investigation.

The scenario for this lesson is a workplace embezzlement case. Lanning tells the students, “We’re going to go through pulling a hard drive from a system. We’re going to extract an image, and it’s going to take time — it will probably take the majority of the class time for that to happen.”

Six graduate students organize into a team of analysts. Each is tasked with work based on laws and policies. Two students establish a checklist of procedures on a whiteboard at the front of the lab. Other students begin collecting evidence from the simulated crime scene and document a chain of custody. Two others are preparing the forensic lab for analysis.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
Graduate Student Michael Lerma, left, works with student Frederick Chen to process the hard drive.

Michael Lerma is in charge of pulling out the hard drive from the desktop tower. He calls out information for the other team members: “The hard drive model … it’s a Seagate 'barracuda' B500 gigabyte,” he says.

Lerma worked more than 20 years in IT, so he has experience managing hard drives. What he’s learning here are different tools and applications to extract images and perform other cyber investigative work. He’s hoping an advanced degree in cybersecurity will take his career in a new direction.

“Getting into cybersecurity has really energized me and got me excited, and I look forward to working in any one of the many facets that the cybersecurity field offers,” Lerma says.

Justin Eichorn, assistant professor of cyber defense, teaches the undergraduate cybersecurity program at Friends. The program currently serves adult learners with evening classes and will expand to a traditional undergraduate program this fall.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
Friends University assistant professor Justin Eichorn teaches the undergraduate cybersecurity program.

Eichorn says high school students who choose this major will have an advantage because they’ve grown up with technology.

“Nowadays you're almost in elementary with iPads and tablets," he says. "So we've got students who are familiar with the technology, and it's going to be that much easier of a transition when we say, ‘OK, now you know about the equipment, now let's show you how to secure it.'"

Eichorn and Lanning say hands-on lessons in the cybersecurity lab provide a safe place for students to mistakes.

“We want our students to fail that way," Eichorn says. "One, they do it here in a safe environment. Two, they learn from that and three, it makes them explore ways other ways to do it."

And if a student "screws up one of my machines," Lanning adds, "I’ll create a new one in a couple of minutes. 

"If they do it in a corporate environment, and somebody starts stealing information or stealing money or whatever the case may be, that’s a bad time to be learning what’s going on and seeing something like that for the first time."

Eichorn says Friends’ cybersecurity program teaches students about the underlying infrastructure of cyberspace such as networks, hardware and applications.

“It's one thing to say, ‘Well, here's your operating system. Here's your graphic user interface where everything's kind of done in the background.' But what we're trying to do is say, 'Here's how everything in the background works. Now go use your graphic interface with that,’” he says.

Experts at McConnell Air Force base and the Kansas Air National Guard’s 184th Intelligence Wing helped develop Friends University’s cybersecurity programs and training lab.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
Andrew Nave is executive vice president of economic development at the Greater Wichita Partnership. He tracks core industry strength in south-central Kansas.

Andrew Nave, executive vice president of economic development at the Greater Wichita Partnership, says the base and its pipeline of technical talent give south-central Kansas the advantage in cybersecurity training.

“In 2017, Site Selection magazine was able to rank Wichita as an emerging IT market, and a lot of that had to do with our cybersecurity initiatives and some of the programs and resources we have in the region,” Nave says.

Wichita State University added an undergrad concentration in cybersecurity and a graduate-level certificate last year. Butler Community College offers an associate degree and certificate programs.

Nave monitors seven industry clusters in south-central Kansas for the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth initiative, a comprehensive economic development strategy. He says the region is a hot market for cybersecurity jobs.

“It's probably one of the smaller sectors, but it's definitely one of the fastest growing. The year-over-year job numbers in data services and IT continues to expand quickly,” Nave says.

The problem is there are not enough trained workers to fill the available jobs. The worker shortage continues to grow because more industries recognize the urgent need to protect their data.

“Everything we do is online. Everything we do requires technology, so the need to secure our data continues to be prevalent whether that's in the business world or personally,” Nave says.

A 2017 global study predicted a workforce gap of 1.8 million cybersecurity professionals by 2022, a 20 percent increase over the forecast made in the 2015.

Cybersecurity professionals can earn $100,000 or more. Some representative job titles include certified ethical hacker, forensics investigator, information security analyst or network engineer.


Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.


Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.