The University of Dayton Center for Cybersecurity and Data Intelligence is using nearly $200,000 in grant funding to help prepare schoolchildren against cyber risks, equip police to investigate the dark web, and train the cybersecurity workforce.

“Our goal is to train students, inform individuals and empower communities to make the online world safer for everyone,” said Grant Neeley, the center’s director.

The center is a regional programming center of the Ohio Cyber Range Institute, and is committed to developing and delivering programming in education, cybersecurity awareness, and workforce and economic development.

Immersive K-12 App

With the grant funding from Ohio Third Frontier, the center’s faculty will create an immersive, interactive, 3D app to teach kindergarten through 12th grade students to identify and respond to online risks such as phishing, malicious websites, and more.

While undergoing the training – known as CyberSafe – students will wear a virtual reality headset; choose a character; earn badges and points for rewards such as decorations for their online space; and compete in quizzes to earn top spots on leaderboards.

“Most training offered by governments, companies and other organizations are made for adults and are not fun for young people,” said Zhongmei Yao, the university’s associate professor of computer science and director of research. “CyberSafe will be gamified, but it’s more than a game. It is a step toward making a digitally native generation more responsible, aware, and ready to respond to risks in the technological world.”

The university said work will begin this summer with the app anticipated to launch in June 2025.

Training Police Force

The funding will also support a free training program, set to launch this fall, for law enforcement to investigate crimes on the dark web.

“The dark web is a deliberately hidden system where criminals operate beyond the reach of traditional investigative methods,” said Scott Belshaw, professor and chair of the department of criminal justice and security studies. “Officers need cyber skills and foundational knowledge of the dark web to break through the anonymity and better protect their communities.”

The center said the series of training modules will address encryption technologies, anonymization tools, tactics cybercriminals use to conceal their identities, the global nature of crimes, and more.

Advancing Workforce Training

The University of Dayton also will partner with the University of Cincinnati on a new program to attract, educate and graduate students for a more diverse and inclusive cybersecurity workforce.

According to the University of Dayton, faculty will develop a program to engage and guide students into courses and conduct public outreach through seminars, workshops, lab tours and summer research programs that introduce the career opportunity to elementary, middle and high school students.

“There is an extreme need for people trained in formal methods, the use of advanced math and logic techniques to test for software programming errors, which reduces the ability of hackers to steal information, disrupt operations and more,” said Luan Nguyen, assistant professor of computer science and director of UD’s Reliable Autonomous System Lab. “The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency estimates there are fewer than 1,000 formal methods experts in the U.S., and most of them are working in industries such as semiconductors and not yet in cybersecurity and software engineering.”

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