When Garrett Brown first enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), he knew he had a passion for cybersecurity, but was unsure where to gain additional hands-on experience in the field outside of class. Fast forwarding to spring 2021, Brown found the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program – an education program supported by Georgia Tech and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) that allows undergraduate and graduate students to earn academic credit for working with faculty on projects they don't typically encounter in a classroom setting.
Brown, who is now a fourth-year computer science major, took GTRI's Embedded Systems Cybersecurity (ESCS) VIP class during the spring and fall 2021 semesters, which he says has had a direct influence on his future career goals.
"By joining the ESCS VIP team, I was able to confirm my interest in the field of cybersecurity, and eventually come to love the work I was doing in the course," Brown said. "I have no doubt that I’ll be choosing to pursue cybersecurity once I graduate – in fact, I hope to come back to Georgia Tech to obtain a master's in cybersecurity. All of these life-changing decisions may have never been made without the help of VIP."
All Hands on Deck
VIP extends project-based learning beyond a single semester, with students participating for up to three years. Instead of traditional class lectures, they work together to create solutions for real-world challenges – from designing a technology aimed at increasing voter turnout to developing next-generation medical devices that advance the treatment of widespread illnesses.
"The goal of the VIP Program is to enable everyone — undergraduate students, graduate students, researchers, and faculty — to work together in a way that benefits all of them," said Edward Coyle, the John B. Peatman Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar who is the founder and director of the VIP Program. Coyle is also director of the broader VIP Consortium of universities around the world that run VIP Programs.
VIP Programs are now active in over 40 universities, with more than 4,500 students participating per term around the globe. The entire Georgia Tech VIP program currently serves 86 VIP teams involving more than 200 faculty and over 1,300 students. GTRI has 13 VIP teams that involve roughly 40 faculty members.
Coyle said the long-term and multidisciplinary nature of the program allows students to make significant contributions to faculty research efforts while also learning and practicing important professional skills, such as organizational and subject-matter leadership, as they work on real teams that develop solutions to real problems.
Teams consist of 10 to 20 students, who work closely with faculty advisors and graduate student mentors. Classes are held once a week, though team members usually hold additional meetings outside of class. Prospective students who are interested in joining the program can apply to a team that interests them on Tech's VIP website.
Lee Lerner, a GTRI principal research engineer and VIP program lead, said VIP remains one of the most effective tools for hiring young talent with the right set of skills.
"It's a big gamble hiring a research faculty member straight out of undergrad, but we can do that with VIP because we spend enough time with the students to know if a job offer is going to pay off or not," Lerner said. "VIP has turned out to be one of the best things for recruiting that we've ever done."
Beyond acquiring hands-on experience, Lerner said students also learn soft skills such as effective communication, team work, time management, and critical thinking as they figure out how to simplify and explain abstract concepts. Lerner's co-instructors for his course, Configurable Computing and Embedded Systems, are GTRI research engineers Elbert (Mike) Ruiz and William Stuckey.
Chris Roberts, a GTRI principal research engineer who is the lead instructor for the ESCS class, has been a part of the VIP program for four years. Through VIP, Roberts is able to work with students to create solutions for tomorrow's challenges.
In Roberts' ESCS class, his students examine and assess the existence of cybersecurity protections in IoT (internet of things) hardware devices. The internet of things refers to a network of interconnected electronics, vehicles and home appliances that interact and exchange data.
This year, Roberts' class is centered around fire alarms – particularly identifying holes in the existing cybersecurity protections for these devices and figuring out how to ramp up those protections against potential cyber threats.
"Most people don't think too much about cybersecurity and fire alarms and how they can mix," Roberts said. "But we're investigating and proving that you can actually do very malicious activities to fire alarm systems."
Roberts noted that as bad actors keep getting craftier about how they launch cyberattacks, they could soon target common systems such as fire alarms. Roberts and his students are taking on the role of a cybercriminal – deconstructing fire alarms and figuring out ways to exploit the system and demonstrate that they can take control of it completely.
"This is unique research that I have not seen anyone else address yet," Roberts added. "We're making great headway." Roberts teaches his VIP class with former students and co-instructors Allen Stewart and Jacob Ashmore.
Stewart, who earned his master's degree in electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech in 2019, said he most enjoys working with his hands to solve real challenges. Stewart also finds it rewarding helping students think outside the box to solve problems. "I enjoy working with students who haven't dealt with this kind of thing before, helping them get more comfortable breaking things and hacking stuff to create solutions," Stewart said.
The benefits students obtain from VIP extend well beyond graduation.
Craig Raslawski, a Georgia Tech double alum who earned his undergraduate degree in computer engineering in 2018 and a graduate degree in cybersecurity in 2020, now works for KPMG as a cyber associate. KPMG is a professional services firm and one of the Big Four accounting organizations that also includes Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Though Raslawski only took Roberts' ESCS class for one semester, the experience he gained gave him the confidence to avoid struggling from "imposter syndrome" – or the belief that one's success is undeserved and has been illegitimately achieved – while working as a graduate research assistant in GTRI's Cybersecurity, Information Protection, and Hardware Evaluation Research (CIPHER) Laboratory.
"All in all, many different factors played a part in shaping my early career," Raslawski said. "However, Roberts' VIP class was my first exposure to hardware security, and I have remained involved in this area since fall 2017."
Writer: Anna Akins
Georgia Tech Research Institute
Atlanta, Georgia USA
The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is the nonprofit, applied research division of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). Founded in 1934 as the Engineering Experiment Station, GTRI has grown to more than 2,800 employees supporting eight laboratories in over 20 locations around the country and performing more than $700 million of problem-solving research annually for government and industry. GTRI's renowned researchers combine science, engineering, economics, policy, and technical expertise to solve complex problems for the U.S. federal government, state, and industry.