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In the winter of 2019, a group of college faculty members, education consultants and government employees from the Department of Education and the National Security Agency were discussing how to address a talent gap in cybersecurity — there were more 300,000 job openings in the growing sector and no one qualified to fill them. Their idea: train career and technical educators to teach students about the field and build a pathway from K-12 to a career.
In early 2020, the Department of Education, in collaboration with several other federal agencies, launched CTE CyberNet, an intensive professional development program for K-12 educators that would meet in person over the summer. Then the pandemic hit. Like most everything else that summer, the program moved online — and educators quickly realized just how crucial a background in cybersecurity would be.
Robbie Harris, at the time a workplace learning specialist for the San Antonio Independent School District, was one of 30 educators in three pilot locations selected to take part in the program. With no prior background in cybersecurity, she spent the next several months learning about the field — everything from developing network and data security, encryptions and binary coding to looking at how artificial intelligence, blockchain technologies and quantum computing work. After the 80 hours of coursework, she and the other educators in San Antonio, Chicago and South Dakota received support and additional knowledge as they set up cybersecurity programs at their local schools.
“We need to educate the teachers on how to educate the students … on how to secure their devices, their information. What are the students giving out to everyone and anyone and cyber stalking and cyber bullying and all of that.”
Kim Muschalek, director of the computer information systems program at San Antonio College
In San Antonio, students have a huge opportunity to find careers in the field, said Harris. San Antonio College serves as an NSA Regional Resource Center, a designation it received for its rigorous cyber education program. The city is home to corporations and government agencies focused on cybersecurity, Harris said, and multinational companies like MasterCard, Victoria’s Secret are also hiring cybersecurity professionals locally. “It’s definitely become a huge thing in education here in our in our city,” she said. “If you’re not talking about it, you’re probably behind.”
Harris is now assistant principal of St. Philip’s College Early College High School in San Antonio. There, through the program she helped launched, high school students can pick a degree in information technology as a cybersecurity specialist as one of their dual enrollment pathways, taking classes for college credit at San Antonio College.
Related: Jobs in cybersecurity are growing. Why are women locked out?
Kim Muschalek, director of the computer information systems program at San Antonio College and one of the designers of CTE CyberNet, said the program is not just about filling the talent gap in cybersecurity, but helping young students understand the security risks that come with technology and how to protect themselves.
“These kiddos have had this technology in their hand. They’re using it all day every day, but they don’t know the bad about it,” Muschalek said. “We need to educate the teachers on how to educate the students … on how to secure their devices, their information. What are the students giving out to everyone and anyone and cyber stalking and cyber bullying and all of that.”
At Harris’ school, all students receive training on how to stay safe when they’re online and using technology, she said. She added that students who can engage in “cybersecurity type coursework” are better equipped for the future in any field of work.
The goal of the program is to build cybersecurity “ecosystems” in locations like San Antonio, Chicago and South Dakota that will benefit both the local economy and the regions’ future cybersecurity needs, said Lisa-Marie Pierre, senior open innovation associate at Luminary Labs, the organization tasked by the DOE to design and lead the initiative across the country. The program recently added Miami and New Mexico CyberNet academies. There are plans to expand this type of cybersecurity education to middle school grades soon, said Pierre.
“As we build awareness, we can also then fuel the pipeline of talent, fuel the pipeline of teachers who are going to bring that talent to work readiness.”
Jonathan Roberts, senior director of Luminary Labs
Jonathan Roberts, senior director of Luminary Labs, said that while tech companies invest a lot in cybersecurity education for professions looking to improve their skills, they invest little in programs designed for teachers, “who are really our frontlines in cybersecurity education.” CyberNet is meant to fill that gap, he said. “As we build awareness, we can also then fuel the pipeline of talent, fuel the pipeline of teachers who are going to bring that talent to work readiness,” he added.
At the same time that companies struggle to hire cybersecurity professionals — there are now more than 700,000 unfilled positions — schools are struggling to meet the growing need for educators and school administrators to have some cybersecurity knowledge to help protect their school buildings from cybersecurity threats.
During the pandemic, schools saw an increase in cyber threats and data breaches. A recent report from edtech platform Clever suggested that as many as one million students were affected by ransomware attacks at schools in 2021. That’s in addition to the increase in data breaches and other cyberattacks schools have faced during the last two years. According to the Clever report, many educators want to see their districts provide more training in cybersecurity and digital security concerns. School administrators, according to the report, said they plan to increase their spending on this front over the next few years.
For Harris, having this training means she doesn’t have to sit on the sidelines at her campus. It’s now part of her job to train her fellow educators and to ensure all students complete security training as well.
“Those with this type of knowledge and expertise,” she said, “are going to be called to the forefront naturally.”
This story about cybersecurity education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter