How to See Cybersecurity as a STEM Field

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Changing notions of STEM

Twenty or so years ago, when “STEM” started to take root in discussions about education and workforce policies and practices, computer science was nowhere in sight. It took more than 10 years for “CS” to become meaningfully associated with STEM. Cybersecurity, meanwhile, is scarcely a twinkle in the eye, included as a “subconcept” in computer science learning standards and largely invisible anywhere else.

But the STEM story is a continuously evolving one. Thirty-three states have committed over $40 million to K-12 computer science efforts this year alone. Adding this “secret sauce” of technological innovation serves to reinforce and extend many of the reasons people put STEM forward as an answer to concerns about global competitiveness, workforce needs, and students’ learning and career prospects. 

Lined up the same way

Cybersecurity education, it turns out, could well be a vehicle for reinforcing and extending reasons to include computer science within the STEM universe. Indeed, as a STEM discipline unto itself, cybersecurity education could reinforce arguments casting STEM education as a benefit to students and country alike. In the areas of career preparation, ethics, and multi-disciplinary learning, cybersecurity education can help engage students’ interests and ground their learning in a relevant context that is both intellectually rich and practically useful.

Want fries with that STEM degree?

When people talk about plentiful STEM jobs, they are really talking about jobs in just a subset of STEM fields.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Science Foundation show how STEM degrees do and do not match up with the number of annual job openings.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Science Foundation show how STEM degrees do and do not match up with the number of annual job openings.

The 150,000-plus students who graduate with life science degrees every year vastly outnumber the not-quite 20,000 jobs projected to be open every year in the field. Likewise, the 168,000 or so social science graduates might need to sharpen their elbows to claim one of the 15,000 “social science” jobs available. On the other hand, the 72,000 computer science degree-holders will likely find a wealth of choices available to them among the over-400,000 computer occupations needing to be filled every year. Engineering degrees, too, match up well with job openings.

So, in these lights, a STEM degree provides a far-from-certain pathway into a job that draws directly on the substance of a student’s major. As vocational training, we would have to say STEM education gets a middling grade.

Not really the point, though

We undersell STEM education, however, by pitching it as just vocational training. After all, a degree in a field does not necessarily signal an intention or desire to work in that field. Students often follow their nose one way in school and quite a different way after graduation.

A fascinating piece of data visualization from the Census Bureau illustrates this point.  In no STEM field is the correlation between degree and job noticeably more than half, engineering and computer science included. A degree in physical science, for example, is about as likely to lead to work as a physical scientist as it is to work as a health care, management, or education professional.

People who earn degrees in physical science go on to work in many different fields, some related to their field of study and some not at all.

People who earn degrees in physical science go on to work in many different fields, some related to their field of study and some not at all.

STEM degrees, it would seem, can serve to launch students into a variety of careers far beyond the range of jobs implied by a particular major field of study. Especially in the less technical fields – i.e., non-computer and non-engineering – the career outcomes of STEM majors look much like those of non-STEM majors: people working in all sorts of fields doing all sorts of things. STEM education, writ large, seems to function as broad-based preparation for career success in a wide variety of fields.

A broader view lacking?

For those computer science and engineering degrees that do lead more often into related fields of work, something like the opposite issue arises: the education is too narrow. While imparting advanced technical expertise, education in these areas is seen as devoid of context. Students do not learn to consider the social dimensions or ethical implications of the high-tech products and services they launch into the marketplace.

Mitchell Baker, Chair and Co-Founder of Mozilla, laments the result of study in these fields that “produce[s] an environment where tech platforms and products [are] developed in isolation from the broader effects on society.” And indeed, dystopian applications of technologies are easy to find, coming in all kinds of flavors and scales:

What we can do/what we should do

A boomlet in “ethics in computer science” programs, in fact, seems to be taking shape in response to problems like these. Baker, for example, is leading a charge among philanthropic organizations and academics to encourage and identify approaches to integrating ethics into computer science programs. The Responsible Computer Science Challenge is delivering $3.5 million to undergraduate computer science educators working on this effort.

This argument puts John Dewey’s idea of “plasticity” at the center of a vision for STEM education: “The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.” Such learning how to learn, if you will, is a clear antecedent of the “21st-century skills” that people advocate in the interests of students, employers, and the country as a whole.

How cybersecurity fits into all of this

The mismatch between STEM degrees and jobs, the unexamined ethical dimensions of engineering and technology work, and “learning to learn” are all issues directly relevant to cybersecurity education. As it happens, a vision for cybersecurity education can stand on a foundation that encompasses all three of these dimensions:

  • Jobs: Cybersecurity Ventures predicts 3.5 million job openings will be available in the field by 2021. Accessible through certification, two-year, and four-year programs, these jobs cut across a spectrum of very-to-somewhat technical. They do not include the 3-plus million jobs related to cybersecurity work that are currently in existence.

  • Ethics: With an explicit focus on understanding, preventing, responding to, and recovering from cyber attacks, cybersecurity jobs are designed to keep individuals and organizations safer online. The field, it could be said, operates with an inherent sense of ethical purpose, and professionals in the field make decisions and take actions with this purpose always in mind.

  • “Plasticity”: Because online threats are constantly evolving in response to preventive measures and new technologies, the imperative to learn from experience and circumstance is urgent in cybersecurity work. Leaders in the field tout critical thinking skills, curiosity, and inventive thinking as vital attributes for success in the field. Technical skills, meanwhile, can be taught.

Success in cybersecurity study and work can require looking across disciplinary boundaries for connections and patterns not immediately obvious from a narrower, technical perspective.

Success in cybersecurity study and work can require looking across disciplinary boundaries for connections and patterns not immediately obvious from a narrower, technical perspective.

Many points of contact

Cybersecurity education, in its fullest implementation, would cut across multiple, varied disciplines. Business, law, and math are obvious points of contact for cybersecurity learning programs, but the opportunities for crossing subject matter boundaries go further. ISC2 is the lead certification body for cybersecurity professionals, and John McCumber, the organization’s Director of Cybersecurity Advocacy for North America, says cybersecurity professionals, “need to build up their knowledge. Philosophy, art, the ability to understand the sweep and impact of history – technology changes, but the problems mankind has to deal with pretty much remain the same.”

In need of infrastructure

Many of the obstacles to cybersecurity education in K-12 grades resemble those facing computer science, and even engineering, for that matter: few qualified teachers, a dearth of curriculum materials, a school day already full of other, standards-driven learning goals for schools and teachers. But on other fronts – career relevance, ethical context, and alignment with educational values and priorities – cybersecurity education holds distinctive appeal.

Our cybersecurity books help educators introduce the field to students who might be interested in exploring study and work options.

Our cybersecurity books help educators introduce the field to students who might be interested in exploring study and work options.

To help introduce students to cybersecurity career prospects, do look at our Cybersecurity Career Guide. We developed the book in consultation with experts from government, education, and private industry. It presents the field from the same, wide-angle perspective that leaders in the field are working to embed in learning and hiring programs. We also offer the companion Cybersecurity Student Workbook that educators – even with little or no training in the field – can use to help students identify their aptitude for cybersecurity work and the educational pathway into it that works for them.

And, finally

What do you think? Does cybersecurity education have a place in STEM education? Have you seen any programs that work for K-12?

Be in touch with any comments, as well as any questions about our career guide and student workbook. And please share with any interested colleagues or friends.

 


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.

Our Cybersecurity Career Guide shows middle and high schoolers what cybersecurity is all about and how they can find the career in the field that’s right for them. Now with a Student Workbook for classroom or afterschool use!

To showcase STEM career options, pair our cybersecurity books with the newly updated, 2019 edition of our Start Engineering Career Guide.

We’ve also got appealing, fun engineering posters and engaging books for PreK-2 and K-5.

Our books cover the entire PreK-12 range. Get the one that’s right for you at our online shop.