Students Say Schools Must Do More to Create a Clearer Pathway to a Cybersecurity Career

For high school students, deciphering the route to a future career in cybersecurity takes ingenuity, perseverance and creativity, said student speakers at the Nov. 8 symposium “Attacking the Roots of Cyber (In) Security: The Role of Education,” organized by Cyber Center for Education & Innovation (CCEI)–Home of the National Cryptologic Museum (NCM) and hosted by University of Maryland University College (UMUC).

It’s commonly understood that hundreds of thousands of jobs in cybersecurity are going begging now, and projections call for continued rapid growth in the future.  But participants on the panel, “Building the STEM Pipeline: The Student Perspective,” told conferencegoers that barriers still remain in public education that discourage students from going into the field.

By the time the panel was finished, educators throughout the room knew they still had a long way to go to prepare the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Karen Salmon, the superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education. Panel members ranged in age from high school seniors to a recent graduate of the UMUC master’s program in digital forensics and cyber investigation.

“Awareness is really the key factor,” said Khari Thomas, who is a student in cybersecurity at Howard Community College.

“Many students already have the interest, but they have no idea how they can get into it [cybersecurity]. It starts with a one-on-one with high school counselors and other role models who are around students on a daily basis.  There are plenty of free programs online and there are camps. But if they don’t know about them, they can’t take advantage of them,” he said.

Thomas added that having a counselor who focuses on what the students are going to do after high school, rather than what is happening to them in high school, would be a big help.

‘Some people perceive the field as too hard and they will never be able to understand computer science,” said Daniel Liscinsky, a cybersecurity student at the University of Maryland College Park.  “That is not true.  As long as you apply yourself, and you are passionate, you can do whatever you want.”

But he advised students who want to go into computer science to take calculus classes in high school, and not wait to take it in college.

“It is definitely easier to learn it in high school,” Liscinsky said. “I hear about people struggling with calculus if they have to take it in college because they have less time, it is taught at a faster pace, and you don’t get as much help.”

Even if you still have to take calculus in college, you will be ahead of the game if you were already exposed to it in high school, he said.

Selena Xiao, a senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, said schoolchildren should be exposed to cybersecurity early on; that elementary schools should provide workshops in computer programming with professionals from outside groups who can serve as role models that students can admire, learn from, and connect with how the cyber work they are doing integrates into the world around them.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) classes are necessary for “students to develop their logical thinking skills,” Xiao said. Learning something new is “how you learn what your passion is and whether you want to pursue it as a career,” she added.

Ipshita Bhatnagar, a senior at Damascus High School in Montgomery County, said her parents had STEM careers and they pushed her to take any computer science classes offered.  But she said the barrier for her was that so few other girls—at most two or three—were in her classes.

“In my junior year, I constructed a women’s tech club to encourage more females not to be afraid of the male dominance, to learn how to ask questions and to help each other,” Bhatnagar said.

For Antwan King, a UMUC alumnus now in his 30s, interest in computer science began as a child when he played the “Oregon Trail” computer game.  But it still took a long time and some missteps before he discovered that cybersecurity should be his career goal.

“It’s okay not to know exactly what you want to do right away,” he said. “It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to wake up two years from now and know that you don’t like what you are doing, but you have a foundation to jump into another avenue.”

King said that high school students today have more opportunities to take computer science courses than he did. Even so, he cautioned that if schools want to encourage minority students to go into STEM careers, they must do more than provide STEM classes and opportunities for students to advance their skills.

Schools must bring in more teachers and other professionals who look like students in underrepresented populations said King, who is African American.

“If I would have seen someone who looked like me come in and show me how computers work, I would have had more interest. Otherwise, it’s hard to relate.”

But by putting a relatable role model in the classroom, a minority student is more likely to think, “Wow, he looks like me. If he can do it, I can do it,” King said.