The threats facing any municipal government are nearly infinite, ranging from a mild snowstorm to a full-fledged terrorist attack, and their impacts span from minor to severe. To prepare for these potential events, the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) is partnering with the State College local government to make State College safer and more secure from a variety of natural and man-made threats.
The initiative, led by Peter Forster in conjunction with Michele Halsell from Penn State’s Sustainability Institute, is incorporated into the IST 440W curriculum, a class offering a problem-based approach to technology integration by focusing on real-life problems faced by an organization. Students in the class, under the direction of Michael Hills, are creating a Disaster Recovery and Resiliency Plan, the first of its kind for the State College Borough.
If State College’s computer systems were hacked, for instance, government services could come to a screeching halt. Forster, associate dean for online and professional education and senior lecturer in IST, said, “A large-scale attack could disrupt a range of services like turning off the water, electricity or the 911 system.” Without the proper foresight, the consequences of these disasters could become more extreme.
Forster notes that municipal governments often find themselves without the knowledge or resources to appropriately plan for these threats, which isn’t uncommon. “Many organizations often don’t have the time to examine these problems themselves. That’s why we bring in our student groups, and the organizations are always responsive and enthusiastic for the help,” he said.
During the fall semester, students in the class identified 75 potential risks to State College and categorized them on a sliding scale of the likelihood of the event occurring and its impact.
Brendan Farren, a Security and Risk Analysis (SRA) major who graduated in December, acted as one of the student consultants while taking the class. “We were working towards creating an action plan, a common source of knowledge for the whole Borough,” he said. “If some disaster happened, like the power went out for a week or two, they would need a plan that everyone has access to and say ‘ok, here’s how we’ll handle it.’”
This effort will be a long-term project completed over 3-5 years, with each semester’s students building on the previous group’s work to create a comprehensive and actionable plan. Along the way, students regularly meet with Borough officials to collaborate and present their findings. Among the many studies and initiatives undertaken every year for State College, the 440W students were awarded with the Borough’s “Most Impactful” study for the fall of 2016.
Once the plan is complete, Borough staff members will be trained to implement it. Ernest Dabiero, director of purchasing and risk management for the Borough said, “Given our work load, we have found it difficult to make significant progress on completing the Borough's resiliency plan.” By tasking students with the plan’s creation, taxpayers are saved additional costs.
“Working with the IST team over the fall semester proved to be a very good move for the Borough, as they produced a very thorough report that we can use to move the project into the next phases,” Dabiero explained. “There is no doubt that working with the students eliminated the need to hire an outside consultant, and saved the Borough money.”
He added, “Working with the students has been a real pleasure!”
In addition to supporting their community, the project provides students with the opportunity to gain professional experience tackling tangible problems. “We’re always involving students in real-world projects to bring in everything they’ve learned and actually apply it while they’re still in school,” Forster said. “It’s this commitment to engaged scholarship within the University’s overall strategic plan that we’re particularly good at implementing with our students.”