Monday, November 1, 2010

High School Students’ First Milestone in Cyber Security Certification

by Joseph Cuenco, Executive Director, Science Center of Pinellas County, FL

The Science Center of Pinellas County (SCPC), St Petersburg, FL, has teamed up with Raytheon, SRI International, and St. Petersburg College in creating an innovative cyber security educational program that will prepare high-school level students for testing in industry recognized certifications. The Science Center of Pinellas County and Raytheon have been affiliated with the SENDS Project for almost a year now and are consulting on the educational curricula task.

The program’s focus on practical training and knowledge helps qualify students for credits towards a two or four-year degree in “Network Security” from St. Petersburg College, an academic partner to SCPC. The program objective is to prepare students for careers in cyber security -- with the skills and knowledge necessary to protect national, corporate, and civilian networks; provide them STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) foundation components; and help them learn about career placement opportunities with the best companies.

We are currently exploring with the SENDS Project and our Raytheon instructors how we might tap the SENDS Collaboration Substrate to enhance the educational program. We want to help students and teachers expand their repertoire of planning and modeling tools to assist in decision-making about tough cyber security problems, and offer them the SENDS cyberspace laboratory environment for experimentation and testing of new ideas.

Students have just completed the first module of the Cyber Security Certification, the CompTIA A+ hardware and software component. Many are opting for taking the certification tests in the next few weeks versus waiting until the end of the 15-week program. Preliminary data indicates that many of these students (ranging from 9th graders to seniors) are presently qualified to pass the CompTIA A+ certification exams now, even before completion of the training!

Why this Course? Understanding the student’s rational for undertaking the program helps to explain their excellent progress. Our interviews with students tell us that they greatly desire to qualify for internships in cyber security as well as further qualify for armed services and government programs such as the US Cyber Corps. Equally important, they really desire to expand their knowledge in the field and use this training in the real world.

There is another aspect to this Cyber Security Certification program that has engaged these students: the conceptual frame of cyber security provides a great deal of cache – particularly around the dividing line between the “white hats” and “black hats.” Cyber ethics and the module on cyber law obviously make very clear student’s obligations and requirements in these areas. Yet, this still continues to be an intriguing area for them. One aspect is fairly clear from the high schooler’s viewpoint. Learning the skills of a cyber ninja is beyond cool. It’s empowering!

Student and Adult Learner Synergy. Our present student base is comprised of high school students mixed with adult students, in a university-based learning environment. The adults are more interested in obtaining job skills and certifications which will enhance their portfolio of employment skills. There is one dynamic that we are beginning to learn more about – what each of the student segments can “learn” from one another or share in an osmosis-like environment. These high schooler’s appear to learn and think almost as fast as today’s dual-core processors, challenging the older students to learn differently, as well.

For the adults, there appears to be much more rigor and thought required into learning new concepts; almost certainly requiring a great deal more energy at the end of the work day to be receptive to brain stimulation. Can the two segments benefit one another in this learning process? Our observations suggest that the answer is yes: there are benefits to both populations of students.

What can the adults provide the younger students? They help to focus on structure and rigor of their learning process. These adults obviously possess a great deal more experience having gone through various levels of formal and informal training. Tools, process, and discipline have been necessary in order for their desired educational goals to be achieved. Our high school students are observing that some of these “adult approaches” to learning might be useful to them too. It’s a great mix of youthful energy and more experienced academic rigor!

Industry Perspectives. A key element to learning cyber security foundations through the teaching of industry experts is understanding the practical application of these concepts in the work environment. The students learn to frame their questions in important ways. What are the benefits from working with virtual machines? Why is the documentation really important? What was the worst case of troubleshooting I’ve had? What is the optimal humidity setting for a server room? (I asked that one).

Our cyber ninjas are beginning to quickly develop their skills, and we are all beginning to better understand the role cyberspace and cyberspace security play in our future. We may just learn as much from our students as they learn from us!

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