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School of Computing: from good to great

Students in Cybersecurity Lab

Twenty-five years ago, we stored our family photos in shoeboxes, not our phones – and certainly not a cloud. The iPad, which seems like it’s been around forever, didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Today, we can tell Alexa to turn down the AC or close the garage door. There are 3D printers making body parts, and cryptocurrency that isn’t really money – but is.


Staying at the forefront of technology is not only critical for those in the industry but also for the institutions that are graduating professionals entering the field.

It has been an important year for UNF’s School of Computing. Not only did the school receive a very generous gift, its students are competing at high levels against top universities and the School just received a significant national designation. Indeed, UNF’s School of Computing is not only keeping up, but working hard to set the pace.

Adapting and staying relevant
The School’s director, Dr. Sherif Elfayoumy, said there are key emerging trends in technology today, and UNF is aggressively building programs and assets to meet the growing needs. “We have completely revised our curricula, adapting what we teach to what is happening and what is likely to happen in the future,” Elfayoumy said.
Three top focuses in the School are cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and the “internet of things,” meaning the connectivity of the internet and devices with everyday items in our daily lives, e.g., cars that connect to the cloud or pacemakers and insulin pumps that share patients’ data with healthcare providers.
Artificial intelligence is the development of technologies capable of performing tasks that would normally require human intelligence such as voice recognition, e.g., Siri, and identifying behavioral algorithms to further customize the user’s experience. AI, robotics and data science are integrated and a key focus for students studying in this area.

National Designation in Cybersecurity
In September, UNF’s School of Computing was named a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education (CAE-CDE) by the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security. The designation, which applies to UNF’s Information Technology program, is effective through 2024.

With a steady increase in cyberattacks, demand for trained cybersecurity specialists continues to grow. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the decade ending in 2026, employment for Information Security Analysts will increase 28%, a rate much higher than the 7% average for all occupations.

In light of this, the designation is significant, as graduates of CAE-CDE programs are recognized as being skilled and competent to help protect national security information systems, commercial networks and critical information infrastructure in the private and public sectors. To receive this designation, programs undergo a thorough review for curriculum coverage and rigor, faculty qualifications, and adequacy of training labs. Nationwide, fewer than 300 programs hold that accolade.

Dr. Swapnoneel Roy, UNF associate professor of computing, said the new designation brings a high level of credibility to the program and also makes students eligible for special research grants and scholarships.
“The CAE-CDE label is important to companies hiring our students,” Roy said. “It reinforces that our students have a strong level of competence and will make it even easier for our students to find jobs in cybersecurity.”

The designation comes just weeks after the opening of a new Cybersecurity Lab on campus, with support from PAX Technology, a China-based international supplier of electronic payment terminals and transaction software with a North America headquarters in Jacksonville. The company is providing funds to support the lab through scholarships, graduate assistantships and research projects for students. Roy said the lab is important because it isolates what the students are working on in a secure environment.

Elfayoumy hopes to develop similar labs for robotics and artificial intelligence.

Increasing diversity
A top goal for the school’s future includes a more diverse enrollment, particularly increasing the number of women in the School. Although the percentage of female students in UNF’s technology programs (19%) is slightly higher than the national average (18%), it has grown from 13% four years ago. Elfayoumy is aiming much higher — 50% over the next few years.

“Nationally, the participation of women in computing is the lowest of all STEM fields,” he said. “We are slightly better than the national average, but we want to be much better.”

Elise Marshall, an instructor and advisor to the student organization Society for Women Advancing Technology and Computing, or SWAT, said the School is enhancing outreach to younger females, particularly middle school girls. UNF students visit local schools and career fairs and partner with NCWIT, an organization committed to introducing girls to careers in IT and STEM. The School’s summer camp has been exponentially growing since its inception four years ago and plans are also underway for an afterschool program for middle and high school minority students.

“There is a lack of awareness, not necessarily of the careers, but of girls seeing themselves in these jobs,” Marshall said. “Our SWAT members love meeting young people and talking to them about tech.”

Debbie Guild, ’94, Chief Security Officer at The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. and an alumna of UNF’s School of Computing, has been sponsoring young women interested in technology for more than a decade at various stages — middle and high school, college and into their careers. “The simple fact is that when we identify young women who have aspirations in computing, tell them they are good at it and offer them a community of support, they stay on course,” Guild said. “A little investment goes a long way.”
Guild, who also serves on the board of the National Center for Women and Information Technology, said the industry needs different perspectives, and businesses recognize that. “Study after study shows that companies, boards, universities, nonprofits all perform better when women meaningfully participate in the technology processes that drive solutions.”

This year, members of UNF’s SWAT club attended the annual Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering for women in technology named for the computing pioneer.

Katarina Capalbo, a junior computing major and vice president of SWAT, had not thought about a career in tech until she had a female professor for a computing class. She feels strongly about exposing girls at a young age to programming and other technical fields. “It is important for girls at that age to see other girls in technology,” said Capalbo. “Hopefully they will think of it as an option for them. Then we can bring them to UNF!”

Community focused
In addition to the hosting events and competitions for middle and high schoolers, students in the School of Computingare immersed in the community in countless other ways. One initiative in particular is having a significant impact – UNF’s Florida Data Science for Social Good project.

Three years ago, Dr. Karthikeyan Umapathy, an associate professor in the School of Computing started FDSSG with associate professor of psychology, Dr. Dan Richard, now the director of UNF’s Center for Community-Based Learning. The initiative gives students real-world experience while helping area nonprofits and businesses. Recognizing that the ability to affect change and do good is dependent on clear, accurate information, students organize and package data so it is understandable and easy to use by the agency or business. It also entails making sure the data sought is the right data.

FDSSG is a summer internship open to all disciplines. While the majority are students in the School of Computing, there have been students majoring in statistics, psychology and anthropology and their different approaches are a key to the program’s success. The students dedicate significant time to their projects and receive a stipend for their work, funded through donations to the UNF Foundation. A recent project resulted in the development of a digital tool for a local food bank. The program not only mapped areas of need based on a number of indicators, but also overlaid existing services to identify the areas of greatest need.

UNF students from the School of Computing also impact local companies as employees and interns, getting real-world experience and contributing to the regional economy. The School works closely with industry leaders, many of whom serve on Computing’s Advisory Board. Companies such as RF-SMART, Florida Blue, Amazon and Google routinely employ UNF interns and students. This summer, Duos Technology had 27 UNF interns in well-paid positions, all gaining valuable experience for the future.

It is a strong partnership that is not only helping students prepare for high-paying jobs, but also ensuring that curricula and research are on par with the highest standards and relevant to what is happening locally.

Competing at high levels
The practical experience provides know-how that is helping students compete on high levels. Each year, there are national and global competitions for students in technology; UNF does well in them. At the global IEEExtreme Programming Compe-tition in 2018, one of UNF’s teams ranked 25th in the nation.

The virtual competition, sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, takes place over 24 hours all over the world. Last year, 5,155 teams competed from every corner of the globe for 24 hours. UNF students worked in teams through the night with faculty taking shifts to join the groups and proctor their work. The competition was live-streamed from two of UNF’s computer labs.

Ospreys also participated in the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery. This is conducted all over the country at multiple regional sites. UNF is a member of the Southeast region, and last year won the top place on their site, and third in the Southeast, outranking schools such as Auburn University, the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama.

Ready for the Future
Elfayoumy said there is a continued focus to expand under-graduate research opportunities. “We know that we excel in this,” he said, commenting that full-time faculty at some larger schools don’t engage much with undergraduates. This is in stark contrast to the norm at UNF where undergraduates have many of the same experiences as graduate students at other schools. “We can create something that is unique and something some larger schools may not ever be able to achieve.”

Donations in recent years are making a huge difference in the School and will continue to well into the future. A recent $1 million gift from RF-SMART will provide scholarships and fund an endowed professorship aimed specifically to increase research, furthering opportunities for national prominence. “If the School of Computing is going to continue to grow, then it needs that kind of support,” Jorge Morales said. Past donations from RF-SMART, iMobile3, PAX Technology, Regency Centers and others are also providing countless resources and opportunities for students.

Elfayoumy says having exposure to research and solving real-world programs throughout their undergraduate years, gives UNF students an edge in the workplace — and employers recognize that. In fact, most UNF computing students have multiple job offers before they graduate.

The School of Computing is the only school in the world with four programs accredited by the Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET. A new degree program in Data Science will be introduced in Spring 2020. It is one of the first programs of its kind in Florida.

“President Szymanski, Provost Rhodes, and industry partners strongly support the School’s strategic objectives (students success, national prominence, and diversity) and that is helping us move forward at a much faster pace,” Elfayoumy said. “We want to always be relevant to the area and to the profession.”