Back in my high school days, everyone wanted to drive a car, but only a few wanted to learn how to fix one. For those ambitious students, there was auto shop.

Teens today might have grown up on video games, computers and the internet, but not everyone wants to open the hood and learn to fix what’s inside. For them, there is a small but growing curriculum in Colorado Springs schools designed to encourage that interest and to deliver those students into college well on their way to certifications and degrees necessary for waiting jobs. Pretty-good paying jobs, at that, without the busted knuckles.

National Cybersecurity Center expanding role in cyber competitions

Now the National Cybersecurity Center in Colorado Springs is putting its shoulder to that task. The NCC, a membership nonprofit that serves “cyber influencers,” is underwriting an effort to set up cybersecurity student organizations in middle and high schools across the country. What DECA is to students with an interest in marketing, the National Cybersecurity Center wants its new Student Alliance to become for students interested in keeping computers and networks safe from attack.

Put another way: America needs major-league cybersecurity talent; the Student Alliance means to stock the farm system.

Cybersecurity is big business here and across the country. There are more than 100 cyber firms in Colorado Springs, said Bill Tomeo, the cyber instructor for Colorado Springs School District 11. Nationally, “information security” jobs are projected to grow four times faster than the average career field, and the median annual salary is just a tick under $100,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Entry-level cybersecurity jobs don’t pay that much, but neither does the field demand an advanced degree to move into a six-figure income. What many employers want, Tomeo said, is not a degree but a student with good work habits, tech skills and the capacity to keep learning.

The military’s presence makes cyber loom larger here than many places, but cyber is more than a military concern. It’s about hospital records. It’s about credit-card profiles. Human-resources files. It’s even your internet-connected refrigerator, which was delivered to you with an easily cracked, factory-assigned default password that you probably never gave a thought to changing. To a hacker, it’s an open doorway to your home network.

Hardly a week goes by without news of a new data breach at a hospital, insurer, university, or government agency — to say nothing of the mischief Russia and China are up to. Trained security experts are needed to keep up with the multiplying threats.

“It’s very difficult to find enough people to fill those slots,” said Thomas Russell, the man at the National Cybersecurity Center charged with building up the NCC’s Student Alliance across America. “The gap is really, really large. Nationally, it puts us in a precarious situation. Suppose, for example, the American people lost confidence in the voting polls. That starts to tear away the thread that holds our country together. It’s imperative that we get enough people to do this.”

Even if the need seems obvious, the necessary resources don’t come automatically. Russell taught cybersecurity in Falcon School District 49 schools until he joined the NCC this year. Now that he’s gone, the district has dropped those classes, he said. From band to baseball, the fortunes of high school activities are largely a product of the passion and commitment of the teachers who run them.

Russell and Tomeo are part of a cadre of instructors in the area who have the passion, and have done what they can with the finite resources of their schools. District 11 provides its cyber coursework as one of eight “career pathways” in the Odyssey Early College and Career Options high school, housed at the Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus. But Russell said formal instruction alone won’t attract enough students to meet the demand.

“Any type of computer skill is not always very popular,” he said. “It takes time to learn, it takes time to become good. It’s not very difficult, but it does take a lot of time. It takes a level of maturity to stick with something, to pay attention. For a generation that wants to be satisfied very quickly, that’s not something very attractive to them.”

To get more students excited about the field, Russell, Tomeo and others devised cybersecurity competitions, tapping into same time-honored competitive energy that science fairs, debates, robotics derbies and 4H livestock shows have provided high schoolers for generations. They recognized cybersecurity education needed what’s known in the business as a Career and Technical Student Organization — like DECA or the Future Farmers of America. If the goal is to get young people excited about a career field, then a student organization is key, said Duane Roberson, D 11’s director of career and technical education.

“They take classes because they have to. They love the student organization,” he said.

Some grant money helped that idea along for a while, but when the grant ran out, it was up to the NCC to step in and devote some of its own resources — also grants — to pick up the idea and go national with it. In January, the center launched the Student Alliance. Russell is assembling a curriculum that blends instruction, competition and gamification (think capture the flag by out-hacking your opponent), and career mentoring and internship opportunities. Students will leave the program with entry-level industry certifications.

The built-out vision for the Student Alliance includes bespoke local and national competitions, summer internships, and national conventions. The vision is of a movement that will get more kids excited about cyber, and a credential that employers will recognize on job resumes.

So far, Russell said he has eight high schools and two middle schools signed up from districts 11, 20, 8 and 2, plus a few schools in Virginia, Georgia and Utah. He hesitates not at all when he says he expects to sign up 75% of the middle and high schools in the Pikes Peak Region. To qualify as a recognized Career and Technical Student Organization, he’ll need to sign up 20,000 students nationwide in at least 15 states. “We’re not even in the conversation yet,” he said.

Bill Tomeo is on board, and when his chapter of the NCC Student Alliance is up and running, it’s easy to imagine that among the first students to sign up will be Alex Umana. Enrolled in Odyssey’s cyber career pathway, Alex is a 15-year-old junior. “I skipped a year,” she said.

I can see why. She’s got Linux Ubuntu fired up and a snippet of code on the monitor, where she’s showing me how to set the parameters of a security password. It’s one of the many tasks required to complete a security team competition called Cyber Patriot. Students spend weeks training, then buckle down to a seven-hour marathon, their team’s every keystroke monitored and scored by a bank of computers in Washington, D.C.

So, is Alex destined to stare down the Russians in defense of America’s power grid, communications web, and voting systems? Or will she use her cyber savvy in defense of her current dream: to own an internet café? Time will tell; she’s not old enough to drive on her own. Her dad is a software engineer; her brother is studying electrical engineering in college. Tech is in the family blood; it almost doesn’t matter what career she takes up.

“Tech is in everyone’s future,” she said. “We all need to learn how to protect ourselves and be secure.”

From soccer to chemistry to music, America’s professional enterprises have always beat the bushes for emerging talent. The NCC wants its Student Alliance to become the cyber industry’s youth development league, and Alex is the kind of student it’s looking for. For her part, she seems happy to keep exploring. At the ripe age of 15, she already has war stories about the ordeals of her last Cyber Patriot competition, and is keen to get to the next one.

“It’s a painful 7 hours,” she said. “But there’s snacks!”

Jeff Thomas was a reporter and editor at The Gazette from 1988 to 2011. Currently, he’s an editor for a nonprofit that supports Christians around the world who live under threat. Reach him via DM at @JTattheG, or by email at j.thomas.100@outlook.com.

“It’s very difficult to find enough people to
fill those slots. The gap is really, really large.
Nationally, it puts us in a precarious situation.” Thomas Russell of the National Cybersecurity Center

Jeff Thomas was a reporter and editor at The Gazette from 1988-2011. Currently he’s an editor for a nonprofit that supports Christians around the world who live under threat. Reach him via DM at @JTattheG, or by email at j.thomas.100@outlook.com.

Load comments