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Cyber Education Programs Target Middle Schoolers

More and more, cybersecurity information is being aimed at this population of students.
Organizations are seeing the need to bring cybersecurity education to middle schoolers. Credit: Shutterstock/SpeedKingz

Organizations are seeing the need to bring cybersecurity education to middle schoolers. Credit: Shutterstock/SpeedKingz

The need for the United States to not only have digital literacy but also cybersecurity-educated students is prompting the addition of programs into the middle school level. Students in grades 6-8 can benefit greatly from having a foundational understanding of cyber concepts, as can the nation, officials say.

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)/Central Security Service’s National Cryptologic School, which already has a robust offering of cyber education programs across the elementary, high school, college and graduate student levels, is growing its specific offerings to middle schools, teachers and kids age 12-14.

The cryptologic school’s Center for Education, Innovation and Outreach is expanding its Regions Investing in the Next Generation, or RING, program, according to Ashley Greeley, K-12 cyber education mission lead for the center.

Originally designed as an online high school cybersecurity course for students and schools that do not have an existing cybersecurity program, the NSA’s RING program will increase its grant awards to spur the development of resources for middle school students.

“We have institutions who are working with their state’s Department of Education to try and recognize cybersecurity as courses that students can receive content for and that teachers can receive credentialing on so they can teach cybersecurity,” Greeley noted. “We also have institutions that are working with middle and high school teachers to get them accredited to teach cybersecurity within their local areas. There is a lot going on and we’re really excited.”

In fiscal year 2020, the NSA awarded a grant to the University of Alabama-Huntsville and Illinois’ Moraine Valley Community College to begin the RING project and develop resources. The university and the community college are part of the agency’s National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity program, which involves 335 U.S. universities, colleges and community colleges. The NSA awards Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity designations to schools that commit to producing cybersecurity professionals that will reduce vulnerabilities in U.S. national infrastructure, according to the agency.

University of Alabama-Huntsville and Moraine Valley developed the RING coursework, digital exercises and presentations. An initial pilot class began in August and runs through May 2022. A full RING curriculum will launch in the summer of 2022, the NSA reported.

“These two institutions and their academic partners developed an online cybersecurity course for high school students in Alabama and Tennessee,” Greeley explained. “The students represent home school networks, rural areas and under resourced schools. Along with the course content and the curriculum, they’ve developed interactive labs and virtual experiences for the students because we know that a lot of times cyber is more engaging when you get to do cybersecurity. Ultimately the goal of RING is to make students aware of both cybersecurity content and cybersecurity careers.”

In participating states, students can achieve high school credit. The program also encourages students to engage with each other and network with cyber professionals through the RING student organization.

“RING aims to mentor students down their career path, instilling ethics and pride in their profession along the way,” the NSA stated. “RING is more than a collection of labs and presentations—it's forging the tools that will shape the next generation of cybersecurity experts. In participating states, students can achieve high school credit for RING.”

AFCEA’s Fort Belvoir Chapter, in conjunction with the AFCEA Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) Student Chapter, AFCEA International, representatives from military academies, and Fairfax County Public Schools faculty and high school students, created a new hackathon effort just for middle schoolers, said Jim Evans, AFCEA Fort Belvoir Chapter president and senior director at Govplace, speaking at the chapter’s annual Industry Days, November 3-5 at the Gaylord National Harbor, Maryland.

The so-called Escape the Planet hackathon will be held this year from December 16 to 17. It involves basic computer coding challenges built around the theme of a space exploration mission. “The challenge engages middle school students to assist the fictional Belvoir AFCEA Space Alliance, or BASA, on their mission of discovery to Planet X to bring back recently detected evidence of ‘proof-of-life,’” Evans said.

This year, middle school students from Belvoir Upper School and Walt Whitman Middle School will participate and form Mission Specialist teams. “Each Mission Specialist team will have a Ground Support Team comprised of AFCEA NVCC students, AFCEA Emerging Leaders, U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets and members of high school cyber clubs,” the chapter reported.

The students will use a micro:bit device, a small codeable computer that has motion detection, a built-in compass and Bluetooth. It was originally created in the United Kingdom for digital education in schools.

Pending the success of this initial pilot hackathon effort, the chapter hopes to build an annual event, supportive curriculum and a community. “The hackathon will support ongoing coding curriculum being taught at each of the competing schools with the hope of seeding future interest and participation in Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math events,” the chapter indicated. “As part of the ongoing mission of the chapter, grants are being offered to each of the competing schools to help further their STEAM curriculums.”

In addition, a collaborative effort between Fortinet, the Global Cyber Alliance, Salesforce and the World Economic Forum is offering free cybersecurity learning for all ages through a platform called Trailhead, which features guided learning paths, on-demand modules, cybersecurity projects, and live and recorded videos. It also features detailed descriptions about individual career possibilities in cybersecurity, defining each role and what kind of skills or interests are suitable. Trailhead also offers stories and experiences from current cyber security professionals.

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