Cybersecurity Education Is Quickly Coming of Age

The responsibilities of citizenship have increasingly come to include understanding and acting to preserve online security measures.

The responsibilities of citizenship have increasingly come to include understanding and acting to preserve online security measures.

The best and worst of online times

The Internet, as we all know, offers all the information you could ever want to find, all the time, from anywhere. Unfortunately, “all the information” includes a lot of revealing, specific data about ourselves, our property, and things we care about that we might not want or even understand to be available.

Always more to do

Staying protected while connected has become a fundamental challenge of citizenship, as the reach of “being online” expands ever more widely into areas formerly off-line.

One result – cybersecurity education has quickly become an urgent need, for all ages. For kids, it’s taking quickest root in out-of-school-time activities.

This summer hackers made off with files of unreleased Game of Thrones episodes and posted them online for public viewing.

This summer hackers made off with files of unreleased Game of Thrones episodes and posted them online for public viewing.

A risky space

The Equifax breach, Russia and the 2016 election attacks, Game of Thrones episode leaks. These are just the headlines for an accelerating rate of assaults against online data and intellectual property.

Cybersecurity attacks threaten assets ranging from the personal and private to shared, national, even global interests. That means addressing them requires responses taken at individual as well as collective levels, from local communities up to and through national and international organizations.

Education a key piece

Education about cybersecurity, especially for K-12 students, is a primary front. Both for promoting individual students’ online safety as well as orienting them towards possible study and work options, cybersecurity should have a strong claim on schools’ attentions. Workforce demands, for example, are only growing, even as qualified candidates remain few and elusive.

Where it’s happening

But like its close cousin, computer science, cybersecurity education remains undeveloped in many of the ways required for deployment in schools. Who will teach it, what kinds of curricula and pedagogy would be used, when and where it might fit in the school day; these are just the first questions to be answered.

Also like computer science, though, cybersecurity is finding a foothold in out-of-school programming. The flexibility and openness available for learning activities in this space create a hospitable environment for cybersecurity education.

Who’s doing what

A host of organizations has mobilized to create and deliver cybersecurity education initiatives. The focus is currently on high school students, and the biggest actors are close to or in the federal government. We are only at the beginning of this story, though. For both personal safety and workforce needs, cybersecurity education has nowhere to go but bigger.

Cyberpatriot is a nationwide cybersecurity competition involving high school kids that runs from October to April every year.

Cyberpatriot is a nationwide cybersecurity competition involving high school kids that runs from October to April every year.

Government-related programs

Cyberpatriot is almost certainly the biggest and oldest out-of-school-time cybersecurity education program. Developed and run by the Air Force Association, Cyberpatriot is meant to inspire K-12 students towards careers in cybersecurity. It has three parts:

  • National Youth Cyber Defense Competition: Teams of high school and middle school students compete to identify cybersecurity vulnerabilities and harden an imaginary small company’s network, using virtual images of real operating systems with existing security gaps. This competition, started in 2009, runs from October to April, and has grown to over 4,400 teams from all across the country.
  • AFA Cybercamps: Five-day summer camps instruct students in cybersecurity principles and practices. Begun in 2014, camps have taken root all across the country, with more than 75 in operation by 2017.
  • Elementary School Cyber Education Initiative: The newest Cyberpatriot program teaches kids in grades K-6 about cybersecurity with age-appropriate kits, offered free of charge. It launched in 2015.

Cyberpatriot seems to have tapped a nerve. It has grown by about 40 percent a year since its 2009 launch. Organizers report that kids respond with passionate, sometimes excessive intensity to the challenge of protecting computer networks and systems. Cyberpatriot, and cybersecurity in general, could be finding its way into the sweet spot for STEM education, offering students relevance, teamwork, and opportunity in an exciting package.

GenCyber is a collaboration between unusual partners, the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation. Applicants to the program – academic institutions, non-profits, and school systems – get funding and materials to run summer camps open to all levels of K-12 student and teacher populations. Emphasizing both cybersecurity lessons and approaches to teaching, over 130 camps have run in 30 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

The National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education supports and guides cybersecurity education, training, and workforce development efforts across government, academia, and the private sector. An effort of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, it is focused on the cybersecurity education ecosystem, working to create favorable conditions for high-quality, widely available programming suitable for learners from K to gray. It’s a treasure if for no other reason than its one-page white papers.

Also available …

Out-of-school cybersecurity education programs are proliferating among other providers, too. Universities, for example, have jumped into the effort.

Diversity in cybersecurity education programs can be a challenge. NYU’s program works specifically to interest high school girls in the field.

Diversity in cybersecurity education programs can be a challenge. NYU’s program works specifically to interest high school girls in the field.

Much more (needs) to come

For now, out-of-school programming offers the easiest way to deliver cybersecurity education for kids. But schools will need to figure this out, too. For both the country as a whole and the private citizens that students will grow into, cybersecurity education needs to be a real part of the K-12 years.

Are you aware of cybersecurity education programs in your area? How do they seem to work? If you’ve had any experiences in the field, please share them. And do pass this on to any interested friends or colleagues.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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