University Of Arkansas At Little Rock Receives $5 Million In Federal Funding For Cybersecurity Education

By Amit Chowdhry • Apr 17, 2024

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock received $5 million in federal funding to enhance cybersecurity for the energy sector through education, workforce development, and innovation. This award comes from appropriations language authored by U.S. Sen. John Boozman (passed into law in December 2022). And the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response provided this funding.

UA Little Rock is leading a group of partners, including the Consortium for Cyber Innovation, Forge Institute, the University of Arkansas, and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). And these objectives include improving education, training, and workforce development for securing industrial control systems (ICS) against cybersecurity attacks, improving cybersecurity threat analysis and intelligence sharing, and creating an innovation program for cybersecurity in the energy sector.

The Consortium for Cyber Innovation, including UA Little Rock, Forge Institute, UAPB, and community college partners in Arkansas, will create certificate programs in cyber-informed engineering personalized for the energy sector.

These certificates will enable students to develop specialized skills tailored to meet the evolving demands of the cybersecurity landscape and strengthen the cybersecurity expertise of operators, technicians, and engineers within the energy sector. And the certificate program will integrate into existing computer science and cybersecurity programs at universities and community colleges within the Consortium for Cyber Innovation.

While developing this certificate program, the researchers will conduct a regional workforce needs assessment on the energy sector within Arkansas and its neighboring regions. And this will include hosting a series of workshops, webinars, and on-site visits to get the feedback needed to understand the workforce skill needs for cyber-informed engineering. The needs assessment will ensure students have knowledge and skills to address real-world challenges and are prepared for high-demand jobs.

The funding will also support establishing an innovation startup program in the Emerging Threat Information Sharing and Analysis Center dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship in energy cybersecurity, progressing ideas from concept to commercialized solutions.

This innovation program will include a mentorship program, a 12-to-14-week pre-accelerator program to help formalize new entrepreneurial ventures, and innovation programs for students, faculty, the community, and industry members. Researchers will work with students to ensure they receive academic credit for participating in the pre-accelerator program.

The award will fund research initiatives that utilize AI and deep reinforcement learning techniques to identify optimal protection strategies against cyber threats. This research will enhance the Emerging Threat Information Sharing and Analysis Center’s automated threat analysis process by refining its attack simulation environment. Bastazo, a university startup specializing in cybersecurity solutions with ties to UA Little Rock and the University of Arkansas, is leading the technical development for this project and will use reinforcement learning to model realistic interactions between defenders and threat actors.

Virtual reality (VR) training environments will also be created to provide immersive experiences simulating cyberattack effects on critical infrastructure such as the power grid. Researchers at the University of Arkansas will augment the cybersecurity testbed at the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission (NCREPT) test facility to allow remote access and experimentation for training and research purposes.

NCREPT officials will also create training modules to assist researchers and students in familiarizing themselves with ICS and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition cybersecurity vulnerabilities and mitigation. And collaborating partners will be able to use the ICS simulation environments for cyber-attack exercises and cybersecurity training.


“Developing a workforce of skilled professionals to combat cybercrime is increasingly important. I’m proud to support this initiative to strengthen our state’s role in preventing cybersecurity attacks and create additional opportunities for Arkansans to safeguard critical energy networks.”

– Sen. Boozman

“The energy sector, and electric utilities in particular, are on the front lines when it comes to nation-state cybersecurity attacks. This groundbreaking initiative underscores UA Little Rock and our partners’ commitment to stay at the forefront of cybersecurity education and research, empowering students and researchers to address the complex challenges of the digital age. We are especially grateful to Sen. Boozman for helping Arkansas become better prepared for the growing threat of cybersecurity attacks in the energy sector.”

– Dr. Philip Huff, assistant professor of cybersecurity at UA Little Rock and principal investigator

“This funding will enable UAPB to hire two cybersecurity instructors who will participate in formulation of not only certificate programs but also revise the course offering in the undergraduate cybersecurity program and graduate program in computer science and technology. This investment also goes beyond filling the instructors; it enables faculty to engage with industry, government, schools, and colleges in developing these new programs in cyber-informed engineering.”

– Dr. Grant Wangila, interim dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at UAPB

“As the Forge Institute spearheads the creation of a national innovation center for grid-connected security and resiliency, we are not just incubating early-stage ideas; we are nurturing the seeds of national security and resilience. This center, rooted in the heart of Arkansas, will be a beacon of American innovation and determination, setting a pioneering path for the rest of the country to follow. Together, we are forging a safer, more resilient future for our nation.”

“We are on the cusp of a national revolution in cybersecurity and grid resilience, right here in Arkansas. The collaboration between the Forge Institute, UA Little Rock, and the Consortium for Cyber Innovation, established in 2019, signifies a monumental leap towards safeguarding our nation’s energy infrastructure. It’s a testament to what can be achieved on a national scale when local entities unite with a common purpose. I am profoundly grateful to Chancellor Drale, Dr. Huff, Dr. Farnell, and Dr. Wangila and the entire UA Little Rock, University of Arkansas, and UAPB teams for their purposeful collaborations and Sen. John Boozman for his steadfast support, which has been instrumental in this endeavor.”

– Lee Watson, chairman and CEO of Forge Institute

“In deep reinforcement learning, a machine learning model learns through trial and error without requiring a set of allowed actions to be predetermined. Through this, we hope to identify new strategies to mitigate vulnerabilities and prevent exploitation and, ultimately, to improve cybersecurity in the electric sector.”

– Dr. Kylie McClanahan, chief technical officer of Bastazo

“We are very excited to partner with this team to help advance workforce development, expand NCREPT’s cyber-testbed capabilities, and further develop collaborations in the area of cybersecurity to secure our nation’s critical infrastructure.”

– Dr. Chris Farnell, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and associate director NCREPT at the University of Arkansas

“I am very excited about how this investment will help strengthen the cybersecurity ecosystem here in Arkansas. Most importantly, it will help train the next generation of cybersecurity experts.”

– Dr. Brian Berry, vice provost of research and dean of the Graduate School at UA Little Rock