Commentary: Challenges to Cyber Education Mirror Those of STEM

January 1, 2022
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

The United States and our partner nations face a critical shortage of skilled cyber workers in this increasingly important discipline. The nature of the challenge stems from demand continuing to outstrip our ability to fill the necessary technical skills. We’re increasingly focused on creating “policy experts” as opposed to developing enough people with technical skills to blunt and deter our adversaries. We need to develop workers with the technical mettle to meet the escalating global challenges in cybersecurity.

This problem is, in part, coupled with that of STEM education shortfalls, and their roots are shared. The U.S. education system is lagging among the world’s advanced nations in the disciplines most needed to compete and prevail in the 21st century. The most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores in 2018 ranked the United States 36th out of 79 countries/autonomous regions in mathematics (the United States ranked 10th in science and 13th in reading). Being a middling STEM nation does not reflect what a global power should expect from its education system.

To remedy this slide into mediocrity and improve our cyberwarfare, we need to reexamine our education system and determine what we are doing wrong (and right) in creating the academic and technical skills we need to be effective in cyber. The root cause of our lag in cyber education is often coupled with STEM education shortfalls.

Many times, flaws do not become apparent until they appear as serious problems. For years, U.S. education has increasingly focused on the social aspects of learning vice the hard skills and associated disciplines that define STEM. In some cases, schools have dropped teaching advance placement courses entirely or until late in secondary school grades. Rather than moving away from STEM courses, we need to increase their presence and direct them earlier into students’ education if we are going to successfully meet the cyber workforce challenge.

The late Alan Paller of the SANS Institute warned several years ago that the United States faced a critical shortage—about 300,000—of trained cyber professionals. Our adversaries are striving to seize control of cyberspace as they push for global domination. Numbers count. China has millions of people with advanced technical degrees, and it would be more than happy for the United States to flounder and fail at properly elevating our education system to meet this challenge. We are living in a highly technical and competitive national security environment, and there needs to be more emphasis in these STEM areas..

When confronted by past trials, the United States has surged to meet the test. The country rose to the challenge when World War II erupted, and the education system received a jolt of STEM emphasis in the wake of Sputnik’s launch in 1957. The challenge we face today in some ways is a combination of those two trials.

To begin, we should increase our emphasis on K-8 STEM education. Programs such as competitive games can entice children into cybersecurity and technical concepts. These efforts can plant the seeds of STEM in young minds.

Unfortunately, our education system seems to be teaching our children what to think as opposed to how to think—a critical factor in cybersecurity. This is improper for several reasons, but in STEM education, “what to think” does not empower and encourage youth to explore different and alternative avenues that can lead to innovation, creativity and problem-solving.

Further, at higher levels, cyber education and training should be more widely introduced as a career option. There is no need to compel everyone to pursue a four-year technical degree for a skilled cybersecurity workforce. Two-year, highly focused technical skills programs at community colleges reinforced by strong mentoring can provide an effective baseline education for people to enter the field. Life skills and experience can often serve as a substitute for many of the current “core” general education requirements.

In high school, increased technical vocational education can focus on more advanced cybersecurity skills. This once-popular approach to training and education should be revitalized and applied to cybersecurity

Efforts need not be limited to the existing institution of education. Several members of the AFCEA Cyber Committee have published a white paper calling for a Federal Digital Service Academy on par with the U.S. service academies, focused on cyber as well as new and evolving technologies such as artificial intelligence

The cyber education train left the station long ago. Now, we are playing catch-up. No one wants to be just average in a highly competitive world, and there is no magic bullet to fix the problem. It will take a wide-ranging effort across several disciplines, and it must be lasting.

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