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Engaging Young Minds in Cybersecurity

Published on February 11, 2020 by Faith Singer-Villalobos



The state of Texas currently has more than 43,000 job openings in the field of cybersecurity, according to Cyberseek.org. Entry level positions can start at $95,000 for a Cybersecurity Engineer, Cybersecurity Analyst, or a Cyber Crime Analyst in government. And at big companies like Netflix, Amazon Web Services, Bloomberg, Freddie Mac, and Morgan Stanley, experts can make much more.

"This is real opportunity — there are a lot of interesting jobs in corporations and government that need cybersecurity talent but don't have it," said Mandy Galante, a cybersecurity trainer with the SANS Institute, which is on a mission to help young people find their path into this field.

(Left to Right) Mandy Galante, Cybersecurity Trainer with the SANS Institute: Carol Fletcher, Director of EPIC and We_Teach CS: Alba Lugo, Vice Principal New Brunswick High School.

In January 2020, Galante taught a hands-on workshop called Cyber Encounters to more than 50 high school teachers, curriculum providers, and administrators from across the state of Texas hosted by the Expanding Pathways in Computing (EPIC) group at the Texas Advanced Computing Center in Austin. The free workshop was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"We're excited to launch into the cybersecurity space along with many of you," said Carol Fletcher, director of EPIC and WeTeach_CS, a program that provides professional development and technical support to schools. "In spring 2019, the state of Texas adopted a program of study in cybersecurity and formal courses in TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). Our goal is to help students identify that they have these talents and move into these careers."

Many of the teachers and administrators in attendance are part of a grant called Lone Star STEM, which is a partnership between WeTeach_CS, the Texas Education Agency, and Jobs for the Future. The partnership is designed to help schools to develop and support rigorous pathways in computer science and cybersecurity that will lead to industry certifications and post-secondary success.

Cybersecurity professionals have a wide range of responsibilities, but the crux of their job is to protect online data from being compromised. As computing has become more sophisticated, so too have the abilities of malicious individuals looking to penetrate networks and seize private information, whether it be credit card or election data. And as more personal information is stored online, it becomes even more important it becomes to step up security.

"Fifty percent of hacking attacks start with a human mistake," Galante said. "Educating future professionals will improve the safety of networks overall."

As a 17-year veteran of the classroom and former network administrator, Galante has deep knowledge in technology and creating real activities for students.

"I'm excited to work with educators and communicate actively about lesson plans," she said. For the workshop, Galante customized materials to correspond with standards from the Foundations of Cybersecurity course and modeled how cybersecurity teachers can educate students through hands-on learning.

Galante asserts that one of the most valuable tools for students to be successful in cybersecurity is participating in competitions. She advises teachers to prepare their students for the steep on-ramp of competitions such as CyberPatriot, a national cyber defense competition which puts teams of high school and middle school students in the position of newly hired IT professionals tasked with managing the network of a small company.

To prepare for competitions, Galante encourages teachers to identify resources for students to learn key concepts tested in CyberPatriot: Secure Windows system configuration (policies, authentication, and firewalls); Linux commands and configuration; digital forensics; and Cisco networking.

Then, she encourages teachers to start their students in competitions like PicoCTF and Girls Go CyberStart. "They're fun and there's a high level of success," she says. At the same time, teachers can sign up for a Cyber Patriot team and work with a small group of young students to "get to know" the competition and how it works.

Sarah Jenevein, a program manager for UTeach Computer Science at UT Austin, attended the workshop.

"We're very excited about the future of cybersecurity education in Texas and throughout the U.S.," she said. "We certify undergrads who are majoring in math and science — we're adding an additional pathway for a cybersecurity certification. I'm always looking for new tools and new ideas about for cybersecurity education."

Sarah Jenevein, program manager for UTeach Computer Science at UT Austin

As part of the NSF grant, Cyber Encounters aims to create internal capacity, which refers to building teacher content knowledge so they can support students interested in taking courses in the cybersecurity program of study.

According to Fletcher, capacity building also means providing administrators with information to design comprehensive programs of study that are institutionalized at schools — "…information like what industry-based certifications exist that are appropriate for high school students; what the IT infrastructure needs are to support cybersecurity courses; and what professional development resources exist to keep teachers up-to-date on trends and standards," Fletcher said.

Fletcher and the EPIC team are doing this through WeTeach_CS by serving as a clearinghouse for schools interested in developing these pathways, building a community of practice, and vetting the resources that are being developed around the country to determine their alignment with Texas course standards for high school.

"Merging technology with young minds is the best job in the world," Galante said. "My students pushed me to learn more beyond just networking, and because of them I earned my Security+ Certification, a Masters in Cybersecurity and multiple SANS certifications. It's been an interesting journey."


Story Highlights

Texas currently has more than 43,000 job openings in the field of cybersecurity with high entry-level salaries.

TACC's EPIC team hosted a hands-on workshop called Cyber Encounters to more than 50 high school teachers, curriculum providers, and administrators from across the state of Texas and funded by the NSF.

One of the most valuable tools for students to be successful in cybersecurity is participating in competitions such as CyberPatriot. Other competitions that are useful are PicoCTF and Girls Go CyberStart.

Cyber Encounters aims to create internal capacity, which refers to building teacher content knowledge so they can support students interested in taking courses in cybersecurity.

The EPIC team is doing this through WeTeach_CS by serving as a clearinghouse for schools interested in developing these pathways, building a community of practice, and vetting the resources that are being developed around the country to determine their alignment with Texas course standards for high school.


Contact

Faith Singer-Villalobos

Communications Manager
faith@tacc.utexas.edu | 512-232-5771

Aaron Dubrow

Science And Technology Writer
aarondubrow@tacc.utexas.edu

Jorge Salazar

Technical Writer/Editor
jorge@tacc.utexas.edu | 512-475-9411