A “Cyber-Cadre” for the Nation: Education starts with Pathways through High School

America and its youth need help! We need to help them better prepare to compete in a super-connected world that may be starting to pass us by in terms of education and innovation, and we need to start now!

A February, 2011 Harvard University Report gets right at the urgent need:

The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken. Millions of young adults now arrive at their mid-20’s without a college degree and/or a route to a viable job. Many other advanced nations are achieving markedly better results with pathways systems that take a more holistic approach to youth development.

But the superior results achieved by these systems argue that we must embark on an effort to build a more comprehensive American system of pathways to prosperity -­­- one that is better equipped to meet the widely diverse needs, interests and abilities of all our young people. Continuing on our current course, by placing almost all our bets on classroom-based pedagogy, is likely to produce little more than the marginal gains we’ve seen over the past two decades. And that rate of progress is simply unacceptable for anyone who cares about the future of America.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States now has the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world. Students drop out of high school and college for many reasons, of course: under-preparation for the required academic work; financial pressures; competing claims of family and jobs — the list of causes is long and varied. But certainly a major reason is that too many can’t see a clear, transparent connection between their program of study and tangible opportunities in the labor market.[i]

We fail these young people because we have focused too exclusively on a few narrow pathways to success. It’s time to widen our lens and to build a more finely articulated pathways system — one that is richly diversified to align with the needs and interests of today’s young people and better designed to meet the needs of a 21st century economy.[ii]

According to General Keith B. Alexander, Commander – U.S. Cyber Command:

 We are changing our conduct and our culture to adapt and get ahead of the threat. If you were to ask me to name the biggest hurdle facing us, it is generating the people that we need to do this mission. We have to recruit, train and retain a cyber-cadre that will give us the ability to operate effectively in cyberspace for the long term. We must invest in and retain a cadre of cyber-experts who will be effective across the full spectrum of network operations…our nation is counting on us to get this right.

Cyber Command is responsible for directing the day-to-day operations and defense of the Department of Defense (DoD) information network…for conducting U.S. and allied freedom of action in cyberspace.  Cyber Command centralizes command of military cyberspace operations, strengthens DoD cyber-space capabilities, and integrates and bolsters DoD cyber-expertise.

As far as opportunity goes, we are seeking to build a world-class cyber force at Cyber Command for DoD and the nation that can conduct full spectrum cyber-operations. Our nation’s armed forces and combatant commands rely on our networked command and control computer systems that have the integrity and reliability needed for combat operations.  Cyber Command’s mission is to help ensure these systems are available and secure. [iii]

Presently there are several initiatives around the nation serving to engage interest and stimulate the attraction of high school students to the cyber security field. Most are represented in the nature of competitions or summer camp type programs, such as the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot competitions, or the U.S. Cyber Challenge (USCC).

It is within this area of creating critical skill sets and developing a fully-qualified workforce for national cyber defense that the Science Center of Pinellas County, Inc. (SCPC), along with its partners, has developed an education and certification program to begin to fulfill those needs.

The Science Center’s approach provides structure to the process. The collaborative team of the SCPC, Raytheon, SRI International, and St. Petersburg College determined that a formalized training and certification program could be much more effective than a standalone competition environment. And, as shown to the left, hands-on classroom education is critically important.

Raytheon cyber security experts along with professors from St. Petersburg College outlined an educational path that contained content from CompTIA (the certification agency) as well as from the Department of Defense. The team proposed an educational program that provides high school students certification training for A+, Net+, and Security+.  This education and skills development roadmap would provide a pathway to either employable skills or post secondary education and beyond.

The education and certification program has several objectives beyond certification training: 

  • Build and capture excitement for entering the field of network management and security while learning the math, science, and engineering disciplines that support the foundation concepts
  • Offer opportunities to these high school students for internships at appropriate high-tech companies
  • Provide students linkage toward a post-secondary two or four year degree offered by the St. Petersburg College with 9-12 credits
  • Make available to students a practical and applied approach to cyber security education via career exposure from their mentor experts

Identifying these student candidates and providing them with summer internships helps accomplish two key goals. Providing students with actual “production” experience helps them carve out career goals and enhanced skills. More importantly, the process initiates the development of a pipeline of future job candidates for our national security.

The first class of students to complete the education and certification course received their “cyber security explorer” status in February, 2011. The “explorer” was one of the first education and career pathways identified by our collaborative team for these high school students. Other pathways, such as the “pathfinder,” reference attainment of a four year degree, and the “navigator” status indicates attainment of a Master’s degree or CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) status. Either of the pathways has identified linkage to career skills and career opportunities, initially beginning with the “explorer” path via internships at Raytheon or other high tech industries.

Many of the students have opted to undergo their certification examinations prior to the course completion. Of the students who took their CompTIA certification examination, these candidates had an 85% successful examination pass rate. While we are very pleased at these preliminary results, our ultimate gauge of success of the program will be with all of the students successfully achieving their three certifications and being successfully prepared for internships or the next phases of security education, and perhaps both.

Most were quite sure about where their recently acquired training would lead them in their ultimate aspirations.

“I’m thankful to have this training as it’s the first step in my career going into the Air Force. I intend to use my skills in a technical career with the Air Force and on a path some day to work for Raytheon.” (Matthew L. – 11th grader)

“Technology is advancing at a tremendous rate…there are basically no businesses that don’t use computers in some way. They will need someone to repair them…and I’m prepared to do that as I go to college for my security degree and career in network security.” Cameron L. (12th grader).

“I learned that if your network is not secure you will be at risk…I’d like to take my education further and hopefully work in the security field protecting our nation’s critical infrastructure.” Robert J. (11th grader).

“I’d like to apply these skills some day and become an engineer. I hope to apply for the United States Air Force.” Justin J. (12th grader).

We are very proud of these students and their commitment to the certification program.  In addition to their normal high school work and outside activities (one 9th grader played in the high school band that marched at the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York – sometimes practicing 10 hours on a Saturday), these students averaged 12 hours of self study per week – specific to cyber security. Their other studies were in addition to that.

Yes, this represented a huge commitment to their responsibilities — which they adhered to faithfully.  We can only assume that these bright young stars will continue to be committed to their careers and education. As General Alexander stated above, “our nation is counting on” them to do so.

So are we!

by Joe Cuenco, sendsonline.org, March 8, 2011


[i] Drawn from presentations by and discussions with Andreas Schleicher of the OECD Directorate for Education. Pathways to Prosperity Project report, Harvard Graduate School of Education, February 2011, p. 10, 11, (http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news_events/features/2011/Pathways_to_Prosperity_Feb2011.pdf)

[ii] Pathways to Prosperity Project Report, Harvard Graduate School of Education, p. 10, 11, and  23.

[iii] Cyber Commander – (Interview with General Alexander).  “Building a Force for Full Spectrum Cyber-Operations”; Military Information Technology, November 2010, Vol. 14, Issue 10, p 25-30; also online at: http://www.military-information-technology.com/mit-home/288-mit-2010-volume-14-issue-10-november/3650-qaa-general-keith-b-alexander.html.