By Keith Pierce

Old Dominion University is nationally known for its commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship in and outside the classroom. As part of the Coastal Virginia Center for Cyber Innovation (COVA CCI),an inaugural class of 24 undergraduates from six institutions took part in the INNOVATE Cyber Challenge. Launched this spring, the program allows students to engage in a virtual environment to practice what they have learned within a real-world, work-based setting.

The students, selected from Old Dominion, Christopher Newport University, ECPI, Norfolk State University, the College of William & Mary and Tidewater Community College, worked in five separate teams oncyber-related products or solutions for business and institutional partners. Each team was provided a challenge to work toward the delivery of a cyber-related product or solution. Project topics included Disrupting Financial Incentives; High School Cybersecurity; Preventing Data Breaches; CVC Student Association; and Communicating "What Is Cybersecurity."

"Innovation is what will save our economy and define the future of cybersecurity. And innovation does not occur in isolation," said Brian Payne, vice provost for Academic Affairs at ODU and director of COVA CCI. "It happens in teams."

Several teams will advance their ideas by creating business models with support from the ODU Entrepreneurial Center.

Chris Shenefiel, principal engineer for CISCO's Advanced Security Research Group, was one of five clients who submitted a challenge.

"Engaging with these insightful, skilled and enthusiastic students gave me hope for the future of cybersecurity engineering and education,"he said.

COVA CCI is one of four regional nodes that are part of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, which seeks to ensure that Virginia is recognized as a global leader in cybersecurity. The initiative aims to support world-class research at the intersection of data, autonomy and security; promote technology commercialization and entrepreneurship; and prepare future generations of innovators and research leaders.

The INNOVATE Cyber Challenge engages student teams in an immersive, multidisciplinary learning experience using design thinking - a human-centered method that focuses on creating innovators and leans heavily on empathy, observation, interviewing, ideation and brainstorming.

"We aren't born with innovation or teamwork skills, but we can learn them through programs like INNOVATE Cyber," Payne said.

Lisa Mayes, director of the Center for High Impact Practices at ODU and co-chair of the COVA CCI Experiential Education committee, points out the importance of such programs in preparing students for the workforce.

"Not only does this experience allow the students to apply content knowledge," she said, "they also develop the work-based attitudes and skills that employers are asking for."

Karen Sanzo, ODU professor and Provost's Fellow for Design Thinking, designed the curriculum and facilitated the student teams.

"Design thinking -by design -challenges learners to view problems from multifaceted perspectives and collaboratively identify solutions," she said.

Cayla Young, a sophomore in ODU's cybersecurity program, was grateful to be a part of the initiative.

"I learned so much from this program," she said. "Being able to network with fellow peers with the same technological interest as me from different institutions was also a part of this great experience."

Likewise, Mechelle King, a Candidate for Juris Doctor, Class of 2021, at William & Mary who assisted the students throughout the challenge, said: "It was my pleasure to be part of this. I was so impressed by all the teams; it was super gratifying to see their weeks of work come to life."

Reflecting on the inaugural class, Sanzo stated: "Through this process, they developed as a team, learned about the power of working in a community of practice, collaborated in various virtual spaces, focused on learning about and developing solutions to challenges and opportunities around cybersecurity."

For additional information about the INNOVATE Cyber program, visit For more information about the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative visit

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