Cybersecurity education must start early: Preparing students for the jobs of today and tomorrow

Thursday, November 12, 2020 - 09:37
The intersection of cybersecurity and space doesn’t seem like an area that affects everyone. But we all rely on satellites for a multitude of things, from live television broadcasts to buying a latte to global positioning systems that tell us where we are and how to get from here to there.
That satellites are high stakes for hackers is an understatement. And the potential for cyberattacks in space is only going to increase as commerce takes off into orbit. But how many kindergarten kids would choose cybersecurity as their career day pick?
“Cybersecurity doesn’t only involve computer experts; it also involves everybody who has a computing device that is connected to the internet,” said Trung T. Pham (pictured, left), professor and researcher at the United States Air Force Academy. “And this participation is obviously everybody in today’s environment.”
Speaking as part of the Space & Cybersecurity Symposium 2020 panel on “Preparing Students for the Jobs of Today & Tomorrow,” Pham emphasized the wide reach of cybersecurity in space and its importance to the future workforce. “Cybersecurity is everywhere, and it implies job opportunity everywhere for everybody in every discipline of study,” he said.
Joining Pham on the panel were Amy Fleischer (right), dean of the College of Engineering at California Polytechnic State University, and William J. Britton (center), vice president of information technology and chief information officer of Cal Poly Information Technology Services at California Polytechnic State University and visiting director of CalPoly’s Cybersecurity Center (Lt. Col. Ret. U.S. Air Force), along with discussion moderator John Furrier, host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s livestreaming studio. (* Disclosure below.)
Promote interdisciplinary education and encouraging systems thinking
Guiding children onto the best career path is a constant challenge for parents and educators. While predicting the future is impossible (especially in the age of the coronavirus), the continued importance and pervasiveness of data is a fairly safe bet. So, as data cuts across all disciplines and cybersecurity is first and foremost about protecting data, gaining interdisciplinary skills is important for the future.
“Key to making sure that students are prepared to work in the workforce is looking at the blurring between fields,” Fleischer said. “No longer are you just a computer scientist. No longer are you just an aerospace engineer. You really have to have an expertise where you can work with people across disciplines.”
Engineers have been busted out of the silo and will have to understand not only the technical aspects of cybersolutions, but also how they will work in a cloud environment. “That’s really changing the forefront of what is a space engineer, what is a digital engineer, and what is a future engineer, both commercial or government,” Britton stated.
An important skill is the ability for systems thinking, or the ability to view each part as integral to the whole. This includes fields traditionally excluded from STEM curricula.
“You can no longer try to fully separate what we would traditionally have called the liberal arts and say, ‘Well, that’s over there in general education,’” Fleischer said. “Ethics is an important part of what we’re doing and how we integrate that into our curriculum. So is communication. So is working on public policy and seeing where all these different aspects tie together to make the impact that we want to have in the world.”
Expanding the context to include reverse engineering — also known as forensic analysis or forensic engineering — Britton explained the importance of the ability to “look at what you have designed in a system and then tear it apart and look at it for gaps and holes and problem sets,” and verifying pre-developed software actually does what it was designed to do and nothing more.
Noting the benefits of using open-source code, Pham also cautioned about the possibility of hidden code. “Open source code is a wonderful place to develop complex systems, but it’s also a dangerous place that we have to be aware of,” he said.
Turn on, tune in; don’t drop out
Knowing what to teach children to make them prepared for a career in cybersecurity is one part of the equation. Getting them to want to join the field is another. Research has shown that the earlier kids are exposed to STEM subjects the better, as by the time girls hit sixth grade, the “not cool” factor is kicking in.
Fleischer ran a STEM outreach for girls in grades four to eight, and her insights from the experience spoke volumes.  “We had 100 slots in each program,” she said. “And every year the program would sell out for girls in grades four and five, and every year we’d have spots remaining in grades six, seven, and eight. That’s literally where the drop-off is occurring between that late elementary and that middle school range.”
Girls and STEM education was the subject of a report from the Girl Scout Research Institute, which found that “outdated stereotypes and feelings of insufficiency can hold girls back.” Active advocates of STEM, the Girl Scouts have cybersecurity badges for all levels, starting in kindergarten with the Daisy Cybersecurity Basics and going through to the Ambassador Cybersecurity Safeguards Badge for seniors.
“If they’re doing it from kindergarten on, it just becomes normal, and they never think, ‘Well, this is not for me,’” Fleischer said. “They see the older girls who are doing it, and they see a very clear path leading them into these careers.”
Creating a generation of cybersecurity experts
Cybersecurity needs more than girl-guides to build the next generation of white-hat hackers. Gathering a diverse and aware workforce is an effort that requires the collaboration of educators, business and government.
“It’s not one segment that can handle it all. It’s all of them combined together. If you look at space, space is going to be about commercial. It’s going to be about civil. Moving from one side of the Earth to the other via space. And it’s about government,” Britton stated. This means an army of cyber citizens that are not only educated, but engaged. Willingly following best practices and building innovative solutions.
Advances in space technology, such as the launch of the SpaceX platform, are creating enthusiasm among not only children, but the general public. “They’re seeing this and getting enthused. So we have to seize upon that, and we have to find a way to connect that,” Britton said, advocating partnerships as “the answer.”
Competitions, scholarships, internships and mentoring are all ways in which educators, business and the public sector can work together to encourage children not only to start to study STEM subjects, but to continue throughout their education and — if they show aptitude — into a career.
A good example of an event that brings together students, educators, business and government is Cal Poly’s California Cyber Innovation Challenge. The university is based on a “learn by doing” philosophy, which means that students experience a combination of practical experience and in-class learning.
“We really take preparing students for the jobs of today and tomorrow completely seriously, and we can claim that our students really graduate so they’re ready day one for their first real job,” Fleischer said.
Industry partnerships with companies such as Northrop Grumman Corp. and Pacific Gas and Energy Corp. are critical for keeping up with current trends, according to Fleischer.
This year there are 82 teams of six students from middle and high schools across California competing in the challenge. Extending the learning opportunity are business “ambassadors” who provide outreach within the schools.
“These are practitioners in cybersecurity who are working with those students to participate. It’s that adult connectivity. It’s that visualization,” Britton said. “If you can make it hands-on, if you can make it a learn by doing experiment, if you can make it personally involved and see the benefit as a result of doing that challenge and then talk to the people who do that on a daily basis, that’s how you get them involved.”
Taking it a step further, the companies actively support the schools with donations of equipment and recruit students from the teams, offering them internships to experience working in the field and scholarships to study cybersecurity. Volunteers are usually employees who have a connection to the community where the school is located, creating a long-lasting and strong relationship. This greats a continuum of opportunity for the students, according to Britton, who added that the importance of cybersecurity is about all of society, young and old alike.
“We need to understand how it affects our lives and particularly in space, because we’re going to be talking about moving people to space, moving payloads, data transfer, all of those things. And so there’s a whole workforce that needs to be retrained or upskilled in cyber that’s out there,” she explained.
Fleischer emphasized the importance of the cybersecurity industry moving into the future.
“This is incredibly, incredibly complicated and incredibly impactful,” Fleischer said. “[There are] opportunities here for students and the workforce of the future to really make an enormous impact on the world around us.”
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