High school cybersecurity education. PHOTO: Cybercrime Magazine.

How Education Must Change to Help Produce the Next Generation of Cyberfighters

High schools need to give students opportunities to see beyond the scope of their set curriculum

Gideon Abramowitz, Student at University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pa. – May 18, 2018

My first encounter with cybersecurity began by chance. As a high school sophomore, I was lucky to enroll in a three-year science research program. Modeled after a college research curriculum, my classmates and I were instructed to each pick a defined field of study and find a mentor to assist us in original research—all by the end of our first year. So, I ventured onto the internet to see what I could discover.

I had always been fascinated with the forces of business, and in my exploration of potential topics of study my search always took me back to practical applications of technology within the corporate world. I read articles on subjects ranging from material sciences to robotics, in hopes of finding something that was understandable and would grab my interest. After contacting countless experts in a wide range of topics, I received responses from a computer science graduate student and security industry expert. Both of them encouraged me to pursue cybersecurity and helped me pave my research path.

By the time I completed the research course, I had written two original research papers on topics that both fascinated me and were valuable in the fresh field of cybersecurity. The first focused on how the market has responded to the growing threat of cybercrime with the rise of e-commerce in business. The other allowed me to exercise my knowledge of programming by applying encryption algorithms to an automotive cybersecurity framework.

The basis of my studies revolved around the growing need for cybersecurity investment to combat the constantly increasing damage and threat from hackers. Yet despite my appreciation of the expanding need for these professionals, I am a rising college sophomore studying economics, and I will not be entering the workforce of computer engineers who will help defend against cybercrime. I guess I got lost somewhere down the path.

Looking back on my experience researching cybersecurity, I reflect on opportunities for change in high school education that could better inform and excite students about cybersecurity technology and ultimately help fill the estimated 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity positions by 2021. In a field that’s not particularly well-known or attractive to a common audience, I don’t think a marketing campaign could help fix this labor shortage. Rather, a fundamental shift in core curriculums could help lead us there.

The growing presence of STEM education is a big first step and one of which most schools around the country are taking advantage. However, more schools need to place an emphasis on computer technology. With all industries becoming increasingly reliant on tech, computer programming should be valued as a science as much as biology and physics. Having technology on the agendas of educators is the right direction to be moving in.

Most hobby and professional programmers are aware of the many free resources for individuals to learn programming languages. CodeAcademy taught me the basics of website design and showed me the ropes of Java before I took a formal course. With enough time and attention, students can learn material from these programs just as well as a classroom setting. I believe it’s important that schools encourage students to pursue independent study of unique fields. I’d like to see high schools rewarding students with a course credit upon completion of an online, self-guided programming course, serving as significant incentive to open students’ eyes to computer science.

Having taken a rigorous advanced computer science course, I think the priorities of the class, and technology education as a whole, should change in order to attract and produce future computer scientists. After completion of a two-semester introductory Java class, I was left with a firm understanding of how to apply the language to basic mathematical tasks and produce some games, but my sight did not go far beyond this.

Computer science coursework should effectively capture the potential scope of programming, exposing students to possible career paths in technology. With its relevance in all industries, teachers need to inform students about the threat of hackers and the value of a career in cybersecurity. Sharing the wide variety of opportunities that programmers have, from game design to security architecture, will excite students about their work and increase their chances of continuing education in the field. By hosting professionals in different industries who can attest to the value of a computer science education, more students will be compelled to continue with coding.

To end, I propose that more schools adopt research programs, just as I pursued at my high school, in order for students to explore subjects that they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to until college. I was fortunate for the opportunity to go out on my own and update myself on recent findings in science, ranging from theoretical physics to various cancer treatments, to finally come across a topic that fascinated and challenged me. Science research gave me the facility to find experts in the field to guide me in a subject that was once foreign to me.

The rigidity of students’ high school curriculum should not prevent them from trailing off and finding subjects that intrigue them. Research programs give students the framework for exploring academic fields while preparing them with scholarly reading and writing skills. In addition, it gives students a direction for a career before they pick a major in college. Not to mention the invaluable professional development that comes with finding and maintaining communication with a mentor.

As our world transitions toward utilizing technology across industries, schools must think about how they can best prepare students for the world they will be faced with years down the road. The cybersecurity industry and tech companies in general need engineers to help build a more efficient and productive future. While some schools are beginning to offer computer science courses, these programs need to expose students to the incredible capabilities a computer programmer can have. Finally, high schools need to give students opportunities to see beyond the scope of their set curriculum. By doing so, schools are granting their students a tremendous service by allowing them to find their passions and preparing ourselves for how technology will shape our future.

Gideon Abramowitz is a student at University of Pennsylvania.