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Cyberlab Multiplies Student Experiences

Photo of multiple student with computer

At a time when the demand is high for expertise in fighting the constantly evolving cybersecurity threats and attacks, JHBC’s Cyberlab is providing students the critical skills and technical experience to jump into professional roles and compete for top level positions. 

Three years ago, the idea for a remotely accessible virtual environment emerged to give students the opportunity to work on projects off campus. Information and Decision Sciences Professors Vincent Nestler and Jesus Canelon have led the initiative, developing infrastructure, securing $7,000 in college support and a $50,000 VETI grant for significant upgrades, and ultimately tripling the number and quality of student learning experiences. About 95 percent of current students are expected to participate in Cyberlab.

“It’s leveling the playing field and giving equal access at the same time,” said Nestler of the program that has the capacity to support hundreds of students in a 24/7 high tech virtual workspace for hands-on activities such as building and testing networks, research, forensics and cloud-based training. “It was great foresight that they had to support this effort. COVID made that benefit very clear.”     

When the pandemic hit, courses that relied on in-person labs were easily transitioned online while maintaining high standards. During this time, a new capstone project was introduced, giving students a chance to try various team roles to create a company and build a network of web, data and email servers and then have peers on other teams try to hack into those servers. 

“That actually pushed the technical ability of students to the point they had not experienced until then,” Nestler said. 

This experience can bolster employment opportunities. After describing what they were doing in a class during a job interview, one student was immediately hired by Mitre Corporation, which supports federally-funded research and development projects for America’s top military, security and intelligence agencies. 

Cybersecurity student Ethan Michalak says he came to CSUSB to accelerate his learning, especially as a graduate from the engineering pathway at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside. He says being a student lead for the virtual lab,  which can have 800 to 1,000 computers operating on it at once, is a big responsibility, but has been pivotal in his growth. Program administrators say the invaluable technical experience Michalak is receiving, along with demonstrated leadership as InfoSec Club president, will likely qualify him for a  job with a six-figure salary upon graduation.  

Now that the lab is fully operational, Canelon says it can help reduce bottleneck classes and support other programs. In the past year, it has been used to help local high schoolers prepare for Cyber Patriot, a national competition where students compete in hardening and enhancing computer security. The lab was also instrumental in the Cybersecurity Center’s annual GenCyber Camp, helping with computing resources for teaching forensics, database, and cyber patriot to about 200 Girl Scouts

“It has been a fundamental asset for the program and for the college IDS department,” Canelon said.