Cybersecurity Goes to High School

Researchers introduce teens to the field in hopes of building a more sustainable and diverse cybersecurity workforce.

As society’s reliance on technology grows, so have the security threats to users and their personal information. Data breaches in the first half of 2021 exposed 18.8 billion records, according to Risk Based Security. 

Though there are an estimated 4.19 million cybersecurity professionals worldwide, an increase of more than 700,000 compared to 2020, the 2021 International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC)² Cybersecurity Workforce Study found that the workforce will need to grow 65% to “effectively defend” critical assets around the world. 

Yet, even as threats—and the need for skilled workers in this field—surge, there remain substantial diversity inequities. The U.S. Department of Labor says African Americans comprised 12% of information security analysts in the U.S. in 2020, and Hispanics represented about 16%. White workers represented 80% of the field. Women represented just 11.4%. 

And among minority cybersecurity professionals, 23% hold a role of director or above, 7% below the U.S. average, the (ISC)² found. 

A new program launched at Florida Tech in late 2021 seeks to remedy some of these discrepancies from a critical starting point: high school. 

With “Educational Approaches and Curriculum to Engage and Educate a More Diverse Cybersecurity Workforce,” the university is taking a local approach. Funded by a three-year, $750,000 Office of Naval Research (ONR) grant, the program seeks to expose youth to potential cybersecurity career opportunities. Cocoa High School’s junior ROTC (JROTC) program is the initial focus. 

Led by Meredith Carroll, aeronautics professor, and TJ O’Connor, computer engineering and sciences assistant professor and head of Florida Tech’s cybersecurity program, the program is built on exposing high school students to cybersecurity training in a way that appeals to them and, thus, establishes a foundation that could lead to a career in the field. 

The Search for Opportunity 

The genesis of the Educational Approaches program came from another ONR grant won two years ago. Carroll was conducting educational research on increasing learner engagement for unmanned aircraft systems training when she came across a STEM grant opportunity that focused on cybersecurity but also had a training and human factors component to it, which are key elements of Carroll’s research. She reached out to O’Connor and computer engineering assistant professor Siddhartha Bhattacharyya about teaming up for the project. 

Their effort was successful. The team won the $250,000, one-year grant with a proposal titled, “A Multidisciplinary Approach to Internet-of-Things (IoT) Cybersecurity Research to Develop the Research Capacity of ROTC Students.” 

As the group conducted more research on its way to developing the Educational Approaches program, the lack of diversity in the field became an undeniable factor. Through discussions with a female colleague, O’Connor focused initially on his own areas, including the university cybersecurity team

“My colleague had some really good thoughts on it and shared them with me. And one is, you tend to go with people that look like you and act like you. You have mentors that are similar to you in nature,” O’Connor says. “And there wasn’t a lot of representation on the team from women, so it wasn’t driving the team. We started looking at some opportunities to integrate more women into cybersecurity research and the cybersecurity program, and it’s yielded a lot of positive internal results.” 

While most cybersecurity education heavily leverages competition-based coursework, O’Connor saw the barriers to entry in the field for historically marginalized communities. They led to discussions with Carroll on ways to better include underrepresented groups in cybersecurity programs. 

Their initial take was to ground the educational activities in technology that students are familiar with, like IoT devices, such as security cameras and camera doorbells. This would increase meaningfulness to students, and allowing the students to tinker with the technology would take some of the abstract concepts and make them concrete and relevant to their everyday lives. 

That familiarity, combined with instructional strategies that have been shown to effectively engage women and minorities, they believed, would lead to higher levels of interest and engagement than the bright neon lights, dark lighting and techno music often associated with cybersecurity and hacking competitions. 

“We want to make cybersecurity accessible to all, and we are investigating how to make curricula exciting and fascinating to a broad array of the populace,” O’Connor says. 

We want to make cybersecurity accessible to all, and we are investigating how to make curricula exciting and fascinating to a broad array of the populace. 

TJ O’Connor, computer engineering and sciences assistant professor and Cybersecurity Program Head

Project Start 

Florida Tech student sits at desk surrounded by high school students on a computer.
Computer science senior Tiffanie Petersen works with students at Cocoa High School during the launch of the “Educational Approaches” research grant.

As Carroll and O’Connor’s discussions continued, they looked around for more tandem research opportunities. Carroll discovered another ONR grant, this one to develop a course. 

Carroll and O’Connor reached out to Cocoa High’s administration and provided an overview of their initiative. Cocoa High’s administration thought JROTC cadets would pair well with Florida Tech and the cybersecurity program. 

Retired Lt. Col. Joseph Pavone, Cocoa High JROTC lead, said the educational program will enable cadets to experience technology in a new way and allow them to develop skills they may use in future careers. The program also aligns with the goal of the JROTC: setting the students up for success after they leave high school. 

“I believe that exposure to cybersecurity will create opportunities, and this is an excellent beginning, especially with our diverse student body. Information, knowledge and education will enable underserved minority groups and females, the target audience of this classroom initiative, to better understand career prospects,” Pavone says. “Cybersecurity instruction will prepare our cadets to be successful and equipped for their future. Cybersecurity is a growing field and will require all students to be mindful so they can pursue higher education or new, challenging and high-paying careers.” 

In December 2021, in one of the first group exercises, the team worked with the high school students by having them hack network-connected remote-controlled cars and race them against each other. 

“I thought it was fun learning about different types of hacking and how it can be beneficial,” sophomore Nicholas Deans says. “If we had a class here, I’d probably join it as an elective. I thought it was really fun and interactive.” 

The Course

In working with Cocoa High, the Educational Approaches program will showcase cybersecurity training to traditionally underrepresented groups. Using research from her Advancing Technology-interaction and Learning in Aviation Systems (ATLAS) Lab, Carroll is utilizing instructional strategies and applying them based on the students’ background and interests. 

“Some of the findings from the learning science literature indicate there are certain strategies that work better for certain people,” Carroll says. “In general, meaningfulness is really important. Have you ever had a teacher who, say, when you’re learning math, they create math problems that are really relevant to you? For example, if you’re into sports, they might frame a problem based on aspects of the football field that you can truly relate to. If you can tie concepts to something that’s meaningful to that person, then that can help them understand concepts. You’re utilizing knowledge structures they already have to bring meaning to new concepts. 

“So, if you’re trying to attack a network, most students are like, ‘Network? What does that even look like?’” she continues. “But if you’re going to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to attack your Alexa. We’re going to attack your friend’s Alexa; you can make it say funny things,’ suddenly, it’s relevant to them. It’s meaningful. They understand it, and it increases engagement, but it also increases their ability to learn and understand how things work. That’s one of the key things that’ll be part of the project.” 

A goal of this program is to both spark interest as well as prepare the Cocoa High students for cybersecurity courses in college, which happens unevenly in schools and districts around the country. 

Where a school with more opportunities for its students may have an honors computer science course with a dedicated instructor, schools with less support may only have an online program, if that. By exposing students earlier to expanded instruction, the team hopes to help prepare them for future instruction, as well as to instill confidence that they can learn the language of cybersecurity. 

“We’ve been talking to some of the computer science instructors [at different colleges] about, what are the main things that the kids are missing? What are some things that we could target?” Carroll says. “And a lot of them have said confidence and motivation, because we need to debunk the idea that computer science is something that is so hard that they can’t do it.” 

Computer science senior Tiffanie Petersen works with students at Cocoa High School during the launch of the “Educational Approaches” research grant.

Making a Difference

Zhenee Brown ’20 is finishing up her master’s degree in computer software engineering and will then enter the university’s doctoral program. Brown’s passion for the field started in high school, and she understands the importance of having classes to prepare for college courses. 

Through talking with the high school students in the program, she sees how different backgrounds and lives outside of school may affect opportunities in school. She noted, for example, that one student didn’t have a laptop until he was a senior in high school. 

“So, when they come, everything is really fresh for them,” Brown says. “Sometimes, they struggle in terms of catching up or just understanding different topics because they weren’t exposed to them previously. So, that’s really the goal of this program, and the goal that I expressed to Dr. O’Connor where we want to expose them. We want them to have that background knowledge coming into college. We want them to be prepared so that they can be successful, and they can feel capable.” 

Cover image of the Florida Tech Magazine winter 2022 issue, showing Dr. Andrew Palmer surrounded by greenery and holding a small tomato grown in Mars regolith simulant.

This piece was featured in the winter 2022 edition of Florida Tech Magazine.

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