Primary and secondary schools are in the business of preparing students for their future and ensuring that students have a good “jumping off point” into their careers. We all know that the American education system is often slow to adapt to change and frequently misses the mark with respect to designing programs that accommodate a rapidly evolving job landscape.
But we do have outliers and leaders in the space, and that is what I would consider Lakota Cyber Academy’s program. Located just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, Lakota Cyber Academy is preparing students to defend against the next generation of crime and ensuring that students have the skills to propel them into a successful future. The program takes a unique approach to educating students in the field of cybersecurity through hands-on experience, interaction with industry partners, and three levels of coursework.
The K12TechTalk podcast had the opportunity to sit down and talk with a few people involved in the program: Andrew Wheatley, director of secondary curriculum at Lakota Local School District, and George Kolks, a student at Lakota Cyber Academy. (Listen to the whole interview here) We asked them to explain the program and how it got started.
Andrew mentioned that the idea of the cyber program started with the urging of industry and community partners, and the school took the plunge in developing the program. “As soon as we put the word out that we’re doing this, just people from the community just came out of the woodwork,” he said. “You know, the number of businesses that reached out to us parents who worked in cybersecurity and be like, oh, cool, you guys are starting a program. I work in this space, how can I help?”
Andrew explained, “In education we kind of have a specific approach, and business can sometimes have a different (broad) approach. And we thought it was best to put our minds together to do it. So one of the advice that they gave at the very beginning is, they said, try to keep these courses with kind of vague names, because the industry changes a lot. So instead of having, you know, like 15 different discrete courses, just do the three courses, align them with industry certifications and what standards are out there.”
The program covers grades 10-12 and seeks to provide students with the basics in Cyber 1, culminating in a capstone course in Cyber 3. George gave his take on the structure of the academy, saying that Cyber 1 gives you a general understanding of cybersecurity and puts you in the frame of mind, and goes all the way through a full capstone. George worked his way through the courses and got a certified ethical hacker pro certification as well as CompTIA’s Security+ certificate.
But with so many emerging technologies and career fields, why did Lakota pursue cybersecurity? Their website explains, “It is estimated that there are currently one million unfilled cybersecurity jobs in the United States — and that this will rise to an estimated 3.5 million within five years.” And back to the support of the industry partners and leaders, Lakotaonline.com states: “Industry leaders say regularly that they would prefer students to come right to them with hands-on training and industry certifications, rather than from universities that may be years removed from the industry and may not have up-to-date training materials.”
Who do you get to teach a program like this?
OK, this is great and all, but most schools don’t have access to highly skilled and qualified cybersecurity instructors. Well, in the case of Lakota, neither did they. Understanding that hiring highly skilled cybersecurity professionals to teach the classes was not a likely possibility, they sought the help of English and math teachers from their own high schools. The teachers spent time planning and learning and now act as teachers and guides for the students.
Andrew explained in more detail, “So we also knew that, you know, we weren’t going to be able to pay cybersecurity wages. So what we did is that we looked for teachers who are great teachers and kid magnets. And ultimately the number one criteria was: Are you willing to learn? And do you feel like you need to be the expert in the classroom? And so we looked for teachers that were doing that. So our two teachers, one was a math teacher by trade and the other was an English teacher by trade. And we trained them up. And part of that is the support that we get from our cyber industry partners.”
George noted that from a student’s perspective, he’s not looking for experts, he’s just looking for teachers who are willing to learn alongside him. “I think cybersecurity is something that almost everyone around the world is learning right now. Right? So it’s a growing industry … so from a teacher aspect, it’s great. … You know, they’re learning with us, and … they’re not afraid to say that.”
We asked some questions about the logistics of a program like this. Do students simply do cybersecurity studies all day? The answer is that this program is supplemental to their normal high school education. They’re taking Cyber 1-3 along with the rest of their regular classes.
Andrew and Lakota believe that even if students don’t go into the tech or cybersecurity field, the knowledge will aid them in their future careers.
In a question about who the program was tailored to, Andrew explained: “Cyber is almost as broad as tech. And then you can maybe even argue it’s broader because you could get into policy and you know, geopolitics and the world of cyber. So we don’t have any sort of other courses that are mapped to (the program) or expectations. And, you know, we want to be able to provide students who are really not tech focused, but maybe are into social studies and or maybe want to go into some sort of government work or public administration. In our political science work to also learn enough about cybersecurity, that would be, you know, a value add to them also.”
We asked the guys for a few details about what makes this program different from normal coursework. They explained that, for one, students can get dual credit through the local community college for their cybersecurity classes. Second, the program features guest speakers from the cybersecurity community every other Friday. Finally, and most importantly, these students are getting opportunities to do internships with large companies. This helps them get the real-world experience to help them pass certifications and leave high school ready to jump into a career.
Andrew noted, “Cybersecurity doesn’t have the most typical educational pathway for the people who are practitioners in it, right? … So a lot of people who are in cybersecurity took alternative paths.” And that is what this program aims to be, a jumping off point for students, giving them an understanding of how to have a secure posture in a digital world and preparing them for whatever career comes their way.
I loved this conversation with Andrew and George. I felt refreshed that schools are doing things to involve students in a career pathway that can be of service to one’s own family, business, community, and country. Look them up at lakotaonline.com. They’ve got some great things going. So how can you engage your leadership to develop a program like this? How can you use your expertise in k-12 tech to help students understand the possibilities for students in cybersecurity? We look forward to hearing from you.