(Photo Credit: DoDEA Pacific/Flickr)
Community colleges across California are working together to fill the workforce pipeline for cybersecurity – one of the most rapidly growing and changing fields in the country – through the CyberPatriot program, a nationwide competition and education program.
By introducing students to cybersecurity before they reach high school graduation, the colleges are aiming to foster interest in the growing field, developing the requisite skills and inspiring young people to work toward a career with incredible financial potential. For the students, the CyberPatriot program is fun.
“This is like a real life video game with you against a bad guy,” explained Steve Linthicum, Deputy Sector Navigator, Information and Communications Technologies/Digital Media in the Greater Sacramento Region.
The program began with the National Youth Cyber Education Program run by the Air Force Association, a nonprofit, military and aerospace education association. The CyberPatriot program is adapted to fit each community based on need and resources.
Here in California, a coalition of schools in the Greater Sacramento Region participate in the program, as well does the Southern California Cybersecurity Community College Consortium (SoCalCCCC) which includes Cerritos College Coastline Community College, Cypress College, El Camino College, Fullerton College, Irvine Valley College, and Long Beach City College.
Students enter the program as early as seventh grade and can continue until they graduate high school. “This is a program of growth,” said Lithicum.
The collaboratives identify potential team members through junior high and high schools, provide training and mentoring and coordinate competitions from the local arena all the way to the national stage.
In order to compete, students form teams of two to six members with varying skill sets. Most often, teams include one or more students with fluency in Windows and Linux, along with a team leader or coordinator. When it comes time to perform, the students generally have one person at the keyboard, another Googling, and another managing the communication and information flow.
The actual competition sets up team members to play the role of newly hired IT staff with the task of managing the network of a small company. As the rounds of competition progress, teams receive access to virtual machines — software that emulates a separate, self-contained computer system — running various operating systems. For six hours, the teams identify cybersecurity vulnerabilities within the virtual machines, while improving the system and ensuring that the critical functions are still operational.
Competitions begin locally and the best teams advance on to the state, region and national levels where students earn national recognition in addition to scholarship money.
“Students learn the model of how to identify the problem, brainstorm on possible solutions, design a solution, and then test their solution,” said Sean McNally, Greater Sacramento Region CyberPatriot Middle/High School Coordinator.
Before the competition ever starts, students across the state have access to a variety of learning opportunities. In Southern California, some students benefit from working with college students, who serve as travelling coaches, and speakers who lecture about their particular area of expertise and current issues in cybersecurity.
The Greater Sacramento Region has convened a CyberPatriot Lecture Series that offers regional training put on by local community college cybersecurity professors and mentors at the California Office of Emergency Services about twice a month. Local industry mentors meet with teams in person or via video conferencing weekly. They also provide summer camps and cybersecurity professional development workshops for CyberPatriot coaches.
“What’s really being taught is ethics and troubleshooting,” said Linthicum. In addition to ongoing improvement in each student’s understanding and fluency with Linux and Windows, they learn research techniques, group management and communication skills.
As they continue to improve their programming and reach, the Greater Sacramento Region CyberPatriot program created the Governor’s Cup, a competition slated for June 2017 in which the top performing teams across the state face off.
In the last year, Linthicum’s program Greater Sacramento Region – which includes Sacramento City College, American River College, Consumes River College, Sierra College, and Folsom Lake College – impacted reached about 300 students who formed approximately 100 competitive teams in the region. These young digital natives have a bright, well-defined career pathway available to them.
In addition to the team learning, they can go on to California’s community colleges to earn certificates, degrees and industry-recognized certification prep classes including CompTIA Network+, Security+ and Cisco’s CCNA. The results can include a high-demand, well-paying job. Annual salaries for cybersecurity professionals often start in the $100,000 range.
This program gives students “the opportunity to learn 21st-century skills that will make them more competitive in the workforce for high-demand and high-wage jobs so they can earn a living wage and enable them to contribute to our global economy,” said McNally.