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UVA engineering earns NSF grant to launch graduate program in cyber-physical systems | Robotics

UVA engineering earns NSF grant to launch graduate program in cyber-physical systems | Robotics

All of the grand challenges facing humanity – ranging from health to cybersecurity to environmental resilience – have this in common: Solving them will require increasingly sophisticated connections between the cyber and physical worlds.

But the need to unleash the Internet of Things and harness big data is so urgent, it is outpacing the nation's ability to prepare researchers with the skills and experience to solve large-scale, societal problems.

Homa Alemzadeh, left, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, works in the Link Lab with computer engineering Ph.D. student Samin Yasar. (Photo by Dan Addison, University of Virginia)

The University of Virginia School of Engineering's Link Lab, a center of excellence in cyber-physical research and education, is developing a new program to train students to make discoveries and then translate that knowledge into new technologies, products and services. The Link Lab has earned a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to create the training program, which is expected to become a national model for graduate education in cyber-physical systems.

“Cyber-physical systems have the potential to transform the economy and world,” said the Link Lab's director, Jack Stankovic, BP America Professor of Computer Science and co-chair of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine's Committee on 21st Century Cyber-Physical Systems Education. Stankovic was co-author of the committee's 2016 report that concluded a three-year study of the need for better training in the field.

“While cyber-physical systems as a discipline and technology enabler has evolved tremendously over the past decade, current training for graduate students does not sufficiently prepare them for either fundamental discovery or innovation, or for effective translation and application development,” Stankovic said. “U.S. companies indicate they have a critical need for trained cyber-physical systems personnel to develop new products and services.”

The Link Lab's new training program supports doctoral students performing cyber-physical systems research, and provides an option for graduate students in other disciplines to seek a cyber-physical systems concentration. In addition, plans include establishing an 18-month master's degree in cyber-physical systems. A new curriculum will emphasize hands-on learning; research on real-world, multidisciplinary problems that could benefit from a cyber-physical systems approach; and professional development.

“We intend to emphasize convergence activities as part of their training,” Stankovic said. “Cyber-physical systems are inherently multidisciplinary, with multiple engineering and computer disciplines brought to bear in developing new technologies and addressing grand challenges. Our graduate students will have opportunities to collaborate, embed in labs and workplaces, and manage the deployment of new technologies.”

The program also will focus on recruiting, mentoring and training women and students from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in engineering. Executive Dean Pamela M. Norris said UVA Engineering's new graduate training program is directly aligned with the recommendations in the 2008 National Academy of Engineering report, “Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering,” which said that attracting a more diverse pool of engineering talent will require granting students' wishes to develop knowledge and technologies that will make a difference in the world and improve people's lives.

“We see the evidence every day that this approach works, through our mission to make the world a better place and our core value that diversity is excellence,” Norris said. “The result is that UVA Engineering is a top destination for women students – particularly women in computing and cyber fields, and the number of students from other underrepresented populations who choose our school for undergraduate and graduate studies continues to increase.

“This outstanding new cyber-physical systems training program is a wonderful opportunity for graduate students.”

The UVA grant is among 17 projects the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program recently funded, totaling $51 million, to develop and implement graduate education traineeship models in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The awards will help train the next generation of scientific leaders to develop the skills necessary to tackle complex societal problems.

“Innovative approaches are vital to transforming graduate education,” Jim Lewis, acting assistant director for NSF's Education and Human Resources Directorate, said in a recent National Science Foundation news release. “By supporting approaches that utilize evidence-based learning practices, immersing students in interdisciplinary research and providing students with opportunities to develop career-aligned skillsets, [National Research Traineeship] projects are helping change the landscape of graduate education and better prepare future STEM scientists for diverse careers.”

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