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Experiential Research Education: A Report on the First Year of an NSF-sponsored Cyber-physical System Cybersecurity Research Experience for Undergraduates Program

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

CEED Technical Session II: Developing Research and Design Skills Through Experiential Learning

Tagged Division

Cooperative and Experiential Education

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Paper Authors


Jeremy Straub North Dakota State University

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Jeremy Straub is the Associate Director of the NDSU Institute for Cyber Security Education and Research and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the North Dakota State University. He holds a Ph.D. in Scientific Computing, an M.S. and an M.B.A. and has published over 40 journal articles and over 120 full conference papers, in addition to making numerous other conference presentations. Straub’s research spans the gauntlet between technology, commercialization and technology policy. In particular, his research has recently focused on cybersecurity topics including intrusion detection and forensics, robotic command and control, aerospace command and 3D printing quality assurance. Straub is a member of Sigma Xi, the AAAS, the AIAA and several other technical societies, he has also served as a track or session chair for numerous conferences.

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This evidence-based paper assesses the educational benefits produced for student participants in the first year of a U.S. National Science Foundation funded research experience for undergraduates (REU) on the topic of cyber-physical system cybersecurity. REU programs are designed to give undergraduate students a taste of the research environment to allow them to determine if they might wish to pursue graduate education and an eventual career in scientific research. In computing, some area able to pursue research careers directly after undergraduate graduation, so REU participation can also draw students towards these career opportunities as well. REU programs seek to empower participants to take a leadership role, similar to that of graduate students and professional researchers.

As part of the [blinded] REU on cyber-physical systems cybersecurity, students each took the lead in their own research project. They selected a topic in conjunction with their faculty mentor and performed a literature search related to the topic. Then, each participant created a research plan to bring his or her project through to fruition and undertook the research activities identified in the plan. Each participant also wrote up the research for publication and made a poster for display at a university-wide undergraduate research poster session, during the summer. The program was open to undergraduate students nationwide and students participated from two-year, four-year and more research intensive schools.

As part of the process of assessing REU participants a survey was conducted. This survey collected demographic information about the participants. It also asked them about their reasons for participation and the benefits that they had sought and whether they had attained them or not. It then went on to ask them to identify their pre- and post-participation statuses with regards to several key metric areas (including technical skills and excitement about the research area) and several other soft skill areas. Further, the survey asked participants to identify what level of attribution of the gains that they made they associated with program participation.

Participants were also asked whether they had participated in specific activities or not and about certain outcomes. These questions, as well as a number of others, came from the Undergraduate Research Student Self-Assessment (URSSA) instrument which is commonly used to assess undergraduate research participation across multiple disciplines. Other questions were developed or customized specifically for assessing research experiences in the computer science discipline or cybersecurity research experiences, more specifically.

In addition to presenting data on the benefits that participants received, the survey data was also used to assess correlations between demographic characteristics and benefit enjoyment. Results related to this correlation assessment are also presented.

The paper concludes with a discussion of the benefits of REU program participation for student participants, drawing from the benefit data presented and analyzed throughout the paper. Areas for prospective future work are then discussed. These include the assessment of the two additional years of the program and the performance of a longitudinal study to attempt to ascertain the long-term value of program participation to students’ career decisions and career progression.

Straub, J. (2019, June), Experiential Research Education: A Report on the First Year of an NSF-sponsored Cyber-physical System Cybersecurity Research Experience for Undergraduates Program Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida.

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