S.C. to be pipeline for cybersecurity

Twin brothers Eric (left) and Jackie Berry work on a cybersecurity program at Lowcountry Tech Academy on Thursday. The Charleston County School District is the only K-12 school district participating in a five-year federal grant to promote computer science and cybersecurity to students.

Burke High School student T’Auni Paige decided to take an IT fundamentals class at Lowcountry Tech Academy this semester because she wants to develop her computer skills.

“It’s going good but it’s kind of complicated,” said the high school freshman during a class on Thursday.

IT fundamentals is a prerequisite to the technology academy’s cybersecurity program which offers students experience in everything from computer coding to network defenses to data defense.

During a lesson on Thursday, Paige and her classmates learned about the capabilities of a credit-card sized computer called a Raspberry Pi that helps students become familiar with the hardware in a computer and programming languages.

“It seems interesting,” Paige said.

Cybersecurity programs offered at Charleston County schools, such as those at Lowcountry Tech, are poised to receive an infusion of resources through a new federally funded cybersecurity consortium meant to create a workforce pipeline for the growing field of cybersecurity. The consortium is part of a five-year $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to grow cybersecurity programs at 13 historically black colleges and universities from five states, including seven institutions in South Carolina.

“The goal of the consortium through the vision of the Department of Energy was to create this pipeline starting with public schools, getting young people interested in cybersecurity and exposing them to the area,” said Sandra DeLoatch, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs for Norfolk State University, the lead institution in the consortium. “Hopefully these are young people that would then move on to colleges and universities and study STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and cybersecurity.”

Tony Baylis, director of the office of strategic diversity and inclusion programs for the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which is among the consortium members, said the idea behind targeting minority students is part of a larger goal to grow and diversify the talent pool for the cybersecurity workforce.

“With our ever-changing demographic landscape, why wouldn’t we be more inclusive in reaching out to making underrepresented individuals aware of the different opportunities available to them in terms of careers?” Baylis said. “It’s kind of a natural fit.”

The grant is part of President Barack Obama’s plan to have more skilled workers for jobs protecting the country’s computer networks from cyberattacks.

Vice President Joe Biden, who helped launch the consortium at Norfolk State last week, said the demand for cybersecurity professionals is growing 12 times faster than the U.S. job market. In 2013 there were 209,749 cybersecurity job postings, according to a study from the (ISC)² Foundation, a nonprofit geared toward promoting cybersecurity education. But those jobs took 36 percent longer to fill than other vacancies, the report said.

And the need to fill such positions, Biden said, is greater than ever with an increasing threat of cyberattacks like the recent hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

But the threat, Biden said, is both an “opportunity” to create “vehicles for the brightest young Americans to be able to get into this field.”

South Carolina is receiving $16 million in grant funding spread out among the seven participating institutions. At South Carolina State University around $2 million will go toward creating a state-of-the-art cybersecurity laboratory to teach students about security issues such as malware and hacking. Other schools in the consortium will also have virtual access to the lab.

“Students can go step by step through experiments,” said Professor Nikunja Swain, interim chair of S.C. State’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. “It will give them hands-on experience.”

Swain said S.C. State also plans to add a concentration in cybersecurity through its undergraduate computer science program. An online graduate program in cybersecurity also is in the works, Swain said, with a goal to launch in the 2017-18 school year.

Claflin University in Orangeburg will also receive around $2 million to grow its cybersecurity offerings. Verlie Tisdale, dean of Claflin’s School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, said until now cybersecurity activities and courses at the university have been “limited” with mostly student-led initiatives to participate in hackathons.

The grant funding, Tisdale said, will go toward the creation of a cybersecurity minor as well as upgrades to the school’s computer labs for computer engineering and computer science.

Tisdale said “it’s a huge deal” that South Carolina’s colleges are playing such a large role in the grant because it will help the state generate its own cyber professionals.

“Most of our cybersecurity professionals were not educated here in the state,” Tisdale said. “We need to develop our own.”

The pipeline to the cybersecurity workforce will begin in classrooms at schools and programs such as Lowcountry Tech, said Lou Martin, an associate superintendent with the Charleston County School District.

As the only public school district in the consortium, the Charleston County School District, Martin said, will play an integral role in developing ways to engage younger students in the field of computer science and cybersecurity with an eye toward developing a national model. Martin said that while the school district won’t receive grant funding, it will receive support and access to the consortium institutions.

“I think it’s an opportunity for students to engage in cutting-edge technology with cutting-edge folks doing the work,” said Ginger Reijners, the school district’s director of career and technology education. “It’s a real time opportunity to learn what is being implemented in the workforce.”

Martin said students will have access to summer camps and seminars through the colleges and universities, as well as internships and programs offered through SPAWAR, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory, all of which are part of the effort. The consortium partners will also provide professional development and curriculum support for Charleston County teachers and administrators.

Martin said the school district is working to expand cybersecurity electives to more high schools. Currently, cybersecurity courses are available only at Lowcountry Tech as well as Wando and West Ashley high schools. The district also is planning to add computer coding to its science curriculum next school year in grades K-8.

“The students will have that exposure, and then when they get to high school, we hope they will consider taking a computer science elective,” Martin said.

Twin brothers Eric and Jackie Berry, who were among the first students to enroll in cybersecurity courses at Lowcountry Tech, feel the exposure students will get will help them decide if they’re interested in the field before they go to college.

For the brothers, both of whom are seniors, the experience they’ve gotten, which included attending a two-week program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory last summer, has shaped what they want to do in the future. Eric Berry said he plans to pursue a career in cybersecurity, while Jackie Berry said he wants to go into Web design.

“Before this program I didn’t know if I would want to major in computer science,” Eric Berry said. “I kind of got my feet wet and I kind of like the water.”