Schools Are Training Students to Be Cyber Sleuths

By Brenda Iasevoli — November 22, 2017 4 min read
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It seems not a day goes by without reports of a hacking or a ransomware attack on another business, hospital, or even a school district server. The need is way up for skilled workers who know how to safeguard networks. Some of this training begins in middle and high schools.

In 2016, there were 100,000 jobs in the cybersecurity field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the profession is growing at a fast clip. Experts expect the field to grow by 28 percent in the next 10 years, compared with computer jobs, which are expected to grow by 13 percent. While the typical employee in the cybersecurity field has a bachelor’s degree, young people can get their foot in the door with as little as a high school diploma. And the pay is good: the median salary in 2016 was $92,600 per year.

With a growing field and a dearth of skilled workers to fill available jobs, it’s little wonder there’s a push to get youngsters into cybersecurity training. Even the Girl Scouts are offering a cybersecurity badge to members who learn to combat online extortion, espionage, and data theft, as Benjamin Herold reports in this blog post.

Parkville High School in Baltimore, Md. is just one school that’s beefing up efforts to direct students into the field of cybersecurity, in a state where the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were 4,400 available jobs in 2016. The challenge is figuring out how to teach a subject that is constantly changing.

“You can’t just follow a textbook,” said Nicholas Coppolino, who teaches basic networking classes for Parkville High sophmores and advanced classes for juniors titled “Security Plus” and “Network Defense.” He was trained to teach these classes by the networking company Cisco and by the National CyberWatch Center. A challenge for anyone teaching cybersecurity is the constantly changing field, said Coppolino. Lessons quickly become outdated, plus even quick ones require a ton of preparation.

Instead, Coppolino relies on various websites including Hacker Highschool, which provides lessons in such skills as how to analyze an attack, and Cyber Aces, where students can take a course in the fundamentals of protecting networks. Coppolino also encourages students to enter competitions to help develop and sharpen their skills. For instance, CyberPatriots, created by the Air Force, challenges kids to take a windows 7 computer and make it, in Coppolino’s words, “bullet proof.”

In class, students learn not only how to set up secure networks but how to hack them. “You’ve got to know how people get in so you can protect the company’s network,” Coppolino said. “But I give them the riot act. I tell them, ‘If you use this for evil, I’m coming after you.’ ”

Students can get kicked out of school and possibly serve jail time, he tells them, depending on the infraction.

Parkville High School students who complete the cybersecurity courses qualify for 12 credits at the local community college. One of Coppolino’s students used the 12 credits plus AP course credits to graduate from the community college with an associate’s degree in just one year, and has since joined the Army, working in a unit that specializes in networking and security. Another student, now a senior, landed a yearlong paid internship with the National Security Agency at nearby Fort Meade. She is the captain of ROTC’s CyberPatriot Team at Parkville.

Even if students don’t pursue careers in cybersecurity after high school, the courses they took won’t be wasted. “You just saved yourself $15,000 or more, because you figured out before college that you don’t want to go into cybersecurity,” Coppolino said.

In an effort to generate interest in cybersecurity careers across the state, superintendent Karen Salmon announced earlier this month the launch of the Maryland “NSA Day of Cyber” School Challenge. From now through February 28, middle and high school students will have the chance to take a virtual seat beside the NSA Cyber Threat Director and take part in the real-world scenarios that NSA cyber professionals face every day. Each student will receive a “Cyber Resume” and NSA Certificate of Completion.

“Challenging our students to think ahead and consider career choices in cybersecurity and related fields ensures they have the solid foundation they need to compete in an increasingly globalized workforce,” Salmon said in a statement.

It was in an effort to set students on a path to financial and job security and provide for the critical infrastructure in the defense against cyberattacks that President Barack Obama established a national commission to advance cybersecurity education in 2016. This past May, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that requested a report of cybersecurity education efforts nationwide—it never came to fruition. The administration is now planning to write a new cybersecurity strategy.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.