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The Grand Challenge of Protecting our Connected Future

UI joins national initiative to train next generation of cyber engineers

When Jia Song was about to graduate from high school in China in 2005, her family’s computer contracted a virus. So when she heard that Sichuan University was offering a new degree in information security, it caught her attention.

“It sounded interesting and important,” said Song, who had been fascinated with computers since childhood. “Our desktop was infected, and I was thinking it was important to keep my information secure.”

Now a research assistant professor in the University of Idaho Computer Science Department, Song works for the College of Engineering’s Center for Secure and Dependable Systems (CSDS). She is among the more than a dozen faculty members across the university working to train the next generation of engineers to combat the challenges facing the global cyber network.

A world of ubiquitous connectivity presents not only great opportunities, but also great risks. That’s why the College of Engineering, under Dean Larry Stauffer, recently joined a national educational initiative committed to addressing the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand Challenges — complex yet achievable goals to improve national and international health, security, sustainability and quality of life in the 21st century.

One of the challenges is securing cyberspace.

UI’s entry into the cyber domain is not new; faculty members have been engaged in interdisciplinary research and education in information assurance since 1999, when the Idaho State Board of Education approved the CSDS. The center has since been designated one of seven by the National Security Agency. The CSDS is the only computer science-based center in the Northwest to receive the designation.

“We have established excellent programs in the college to create solutions to defend against what are traditional software and network attacks,” Stauffer said. “What we need to do now is be a leader in the next phase of cybersecurity innovation. That will require us to build capacity to protect systems connected to the internet that underpin key sectors of our economy, such as our power grid, transportation network and water supply infrastructure.”

The reputation for excellence in computer science is one thing that drew Song to UI in fall 2009. Since then, she has earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science. Several U.S. universities had accepted her, but UI offered her a teaching assistantship and stood out for its quality.

“The department here offers a very good security program, and they have a very good reputation in information assurance education,” she said.

Song spent her time in graduate school delving in-depth into how computer systems work, enhancing her programming skills and learning to approach problems creatively. After she graduated in 2014, former CSDS Director Jim Alves-Foss, who had been her advisor, invited her to begin working with him on a special cybersecurity challenge through the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). She was drawn to the project by the chance to challenge herself and think innovatively. Song and Alves-Foss secured a finalist spot in DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge finals among hundreds of competitors and placed sixth at the world's first all-machine hacking tournament at DEFCON in Las Vegas this past August.

Jia Song
Jia Song, Research Assistant Professor

“When I solve a complex problem, I feel excited,” she said.

The College of Engineering hopes to attract even more students excited to solve the complex problems facing the world through its Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP).

Students began applying to the program this fall. The graduates of the program will receive a Grand Challenge Engineer endorsement from UI and the National Academy of Engineering.

GCSP recognition will be given to undergraduate engineering students who complete coursework and/or experiential opportunities within the five components of the program: hands-on project or research experience, interdisciplinary curriculum, entrepreneurship, global dimension and service learning.

"The Grand Challenges Scholars Program is designed to support students who have a passion to work toward solving some of society’s biggest problems, such as keeping cyberspace secure," Stauffer said. "We will pair Grand Challenge students with faculty, distinguished alumni and corporate partners who all have expertise in the student's area of interest and will also help fund student research and domestic and international experiences that satisfy their plans of study." 

Article by Rob Patton, College of Engineering

The 21st Century’s Grand Engineering Challenges

The National Academy of Engineering, at the request of the National Science Foundation, convened a committee of leading technical thinkers to identify the Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st century. 

UI’s College of Engineering has joined the Grand Challenges for Engineering national initiative to graduate undergraduate students who complete a program of study and research specifically designed to address Grand Challenges topic areas over the next decade. The UI Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars program began this fall. To learn more, visit the Grand Challenges webpage.


University Communications and Marketing

Phone: 111-111-6291

Fax: 111-111-5841

Email: [email protected]

Web: Communications and Marketing

U of I Media Contacts