Cal Poly-Northrop Grumman Cyber Lab Professor Zachary Peterson and students in the Cyber Lab, which has 32 workstations, projectors, a presentation center and expansive whiteboard space. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Southern California's Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus is aiming to prepare a new wave of experts to fight cyber terrorism, hacking and identity theft with the unveiling of a new laboratory.

The university announced the dedication of the new Cal Poly-Northrop Grumman Cyber Lab on Thursday.

The lab in the university’s Engineering IV building offers students cutting-edge computer technology to hone their skills in areas as encryption, malware and cyber attacks.

Northrop Grumman donated $150,000 in funding toward the new program for the university’s computer science program.

The cybersecurity company, headquartered in Virginia, specializes in global security innovation for commercial and government customers. Its contracts include work with the National Security Agency.

The company has helped equip the lab with software and hardware, and will provide technical advice as part of its ongoing partnership with Cal Poly.

Representatives from other companies, including Boeing and Raytheon, will weigh in on the new Cal Poly program as part of an advisory council.

“Cybersecurity is critical,” said Wesley Bush, Northrop Grumman’s chief executive officer. “It’s critical to not only our national security, but also our economy.”

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Bush said that the job market in cybersecurity is growing and he’d be interested in hiring Cal Poly graduates with expertise — adding that his company will have to compete for them.

Cal Poly already offered an undergraduate and graduate course in cybersecurity.

The new program will enable the university to offer about four to five courses over a year’s time in cybersecurity, said Cal Poly computer science professor Zachary Peterson.

Peterson said the program not only will teach students about how to identify security threats, but it will also educate them on how to protect their computers from harm.

“They’ll learn about online behavior in general,” Peterson said.

The lab is equipped with computers with specialized software and hardware and television monitors that rotate 360 degrees to double as whiteboards for teachers and students to scrawl notes.

Cal Poly president Jeff Armstrong said the collaboration with industry partners and the hands-on tools will help prepare students to deal with threats that “evolve faster than textbooks.”

“Cal Poly students will be able to enter the workforce equipped and ready to handle the challenges they’ll face,” Armstrong said.

Third-year computer science student Cristina Formaini, one of 545 Cal Poly computer science undergrads, said that she has been studying cryptology and hopes to take the course in malware, offered as part of a partnership with McAfee.

“I would like to work in the industry,” Formaini said. “I’ve attended tech talks they’ve held here with people from the industry who have spoken about hacking and cybersecurity.”

Classmate Jessie Pease is president of the university’s White Hat Club, which serves to help fight hacking and “make the Internet a safer place.” She also hopes to work in cybersecurity.

“It’s really exciting to see this dream become a reality,” Pease said.

©2014 The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)