DHS-Funded CYBER.ORG Using K-12 to Educate ‘Cyber Literate Citizens’

In the 20th century, literacy in reading, writing, and mathematics might have been the requisites to inform participation in democratic and economic systems,  but over the past half century, a new form of necessary literacy has been emerging – cyber literacy.

A survey conducted earlier this year shows that only 45 percent of more than 900 K-12 educators say their students are learning about cybersecurity. Administered in April and May by the EdWeek Research Center, the survey was completed on behalf of CYBER.ORG, an organization whose goal is to provide cyber education to every K-12 student in the United States.

Kevin Nolten, the organization’s director of academic outreach, said in an interview with MeriTalk that “ensuring our nation’s economy has a workforce and an inflow of ‘cyber literate students’ and ‘cyber literate citizens’” is a national security priority.

The organization CYBER.ORG – which rebranded earlier this year from the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center (NICERC) – has been funded through a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over the past eight years. In recent years, DHS’ cyber agency – the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) – has taken the lead on the partnership.

“Support from CISA leadership has been incredible,” said Nolten, specifically crediting CISA Director Chris Krebs and the Cybersecurity Education and Training Assistance Program (CETAP) funding source. “They [CISA] share a vision and a passion for ensuring that our nation’s future workforce is secure and that we are introducing students to cybersecurity-based careers and degrees at an early age.”

The CISA grant over the past eight years has enabled the organization to influence over 20,000 K-12 educators to teach and introduce cyber concepts to over three million students in all 50 states and three U.S. territories, he said. But with over 52 million students in the country, he added, “We have a lot of work to do.”

Even the survey’s 45 percent number (of students learning cybersecurity) is unacceptable, said Nolten, a former assistant principal of a K-8 school.

“What if [only] 45 percent of our students received some kind of social studies or U.S. history education?” Nolten said. “We’ve got a problem; you know that that’s not acceptable.”

Especially troublesome, Nolten said are the number of “cybersecurity deserts” where there is no cybersecurity industry present, or cyber education. He mentioned rural areas in Kansas, North Dakota, and even pockets of Virginia where cybersecurity education is not taught.

The program designed by CYBER.ORG aligns with state standards in half of states so far.

“Cybersecurity education opportunities need to be expanded dramatically, with a particular focus on those socioeconomically disadvantaged communities,” he said. “This problem is going to be solved by every school district contributing into a cyber literate population, a cyber literate future workforce.”

Nolten called the K-12 teacher “the force multiplier.” One method the organization uses is to integrate cyber concepts and curriculum into core subject areas. He gave the examples of inserting gigabytes into a math equation instead of apples, or discussing the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment through the lens of digital privacy.

“We integrate cyber into the curriculum,” he said. “This is where we’ve seen our greatest success by ensuring that K-12 educators have that knowledge, skills, and ability, and ultimately the confidence, to begin introducing students to those cybersecurity concepts.”

“No matter what career field you are going into, cybersecurity is going to play a role in that industry,” said Nolten, adding that DHS’ 16 critical infrastructure sectors are the filter through which the organization looks at the issue of cyber careers and education.

“We begin introducing students to ensure that they have the foundational knowledge to live, work, and play in cyberspace down the road,” he said.

Dwight Weingarten
About Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten is MeriTalk SLG's Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.