Today synED, a national non-profit organization that identifies emerging best practices for effective articulation between employers, job seekers, and education providers, announced that Sarah Lee, a cybersecurity teacher and coach at Ladera Vista Jr. High in Fullerton, CA, is this month’s CyberHero.

Just three years ago, Ms. Lee was exclusively teaching math at Ladera Vista Jr. High. Now, she finds herself teaching cybersecurity to more than 150 middle school students and championing cybersecurity education. Her journey to becoming a CyberHero began with an auspicious start – emergency cybersecurity coach for a team of middle schoolers from Ladera Vista for CyberPatriot, the Air Force’s Assocation’s National Youth Cyber Education Program. The team earned third place among hundreds of teams from across the country.

Ms. Lee was a last-minute substitute for Ladera Vista teacher and cybercoach Douglas Elmore, who was retiring and wanted to hand over the reins to the middle school cybersecurity club.

“I’m walking in, going ‘cyber-what?’” Ms. Lee explained. “That’s when the kids did it – it was all the kids. That trip, that one week of participating in the CyberPatriot competition really opened my eyes to the possibilities for students.”

“This is all Allen Stubblefield’s doing!” Ms. Lee half-joked, when asked how she got started in her journey in cybersecurity education. A decade ago, Allen Stubblefield (SynED CyberHero in January 2020) started a highly successful cybersecurity program at Troy High School, just a few blocks from Ladera Vista Jr. High. In the Fall of 2015, he encouraged Mr. Elmore to start an after-school cybersecurity club there. 

The middle schoolers, with Mr. Elmore’s supervision, would walk over to Troy High School to join high school students in cybersecurity club activities. The club’s popularity grew rapidly, and in the Spring of 2018 the Ladera Vista cybersecurity club team made it to the national CyberPatriot competition finals, with Ms. Lee now taking over as coach. The team members were all students in her Geometry class, so she knew them well.

Yet, Ladera Vista Jr. High still did not have any cybersecurity classes, just the after-school club. Despite the amazing success of the Ladera Vista team, which school administrators did notice and take great pride in, Ms. Lee found it difficult to get buy-in on the idea of starting actual cybersecurity classes at the school. 

She used Google surveys of her students, over many semesters, to show administrators that there was great demand for cybersecurity classes. Finally, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and a new school administration, Ms. Lee was given the green light to do a “soft launch” of an elective course in cybersecurity for the 2020/2021 school year. 

With limited support and no predetermined curriculum or statewide standards, Ms. Lee pieced together the coursework from the ground up using a variety of open-source materials, such as CyberPatriot, Cisco Networking Academy, Cyber.org, and more recently, Arizona State University’s suggested middle school curriculum. Last year, especially, she frequently had to adapt higher-level learning activities to fit middle school students. 

She also includes essential skills related to computers and technology, such as how to track homework and due dates in a calendar, how to draft slides for presentations, and how to use Google docs. “Yes, I want to give them cybersecurity exposure,” Ms. Lee explained. “But at the same time I want to prepare them for high school and beyond.”

“Last year, I told my students ‘You’re history makers – first [cybersecurity] class ever at LV,’” Ms. Lee said. “So we kind of took on that attitude, we experimented with a lot of things. I did a survey at the end, and they loved it! Almost 100 percent said we need to have this class at LV.”

That year, she began with one cybersecurity class and the remainder were her normal math classes. Midway through the school year, she was thrown a curveball when the administration told her there was a new cohort of students joining her class for the Spring semester – to total about 40 students. Again, she designed coursework on the fly to quickly catch the new students up and teach to a wide range of student aptitude.

This school year (2021/2022), with Ms. Lee’s student survey data backing her up, Ladera Vista Jr. High began offering the cybersecurity elective course to any interested students. True to her predictions, demand was through the roof with more than 150 students signing up. Now, Ms. Lee teaches only one math class and the rest are all cybersecurity classes.

“She has more cybersecurity classes than I teach at high school,” said Mr. Stubblefield. “She has more students taking those classes than I do at high school. She had the vision, and it just took some time for her principal to kind of get used to the idea, because this is not a normal middle school course offering. It’s also a testament to how interested families and teenagers are about cybersecurity.”

Ms. Lee is still overcoming some challenges as Ladera Vista Jr. High as the program ramps up. She has inherited some computers, but they need updates to make them useful for cybersecurity education. Her students are currently using iPads, which have limited functionality when it comes to cybersecurity coursework. But the program now has a lot of momentum and support, and Ms. Lee expects the number of classes and students to continue growing.

“I like the phrase Cyber Champion,” Mr. Stubblefield concluded. “To get a program started some place, you need an adult who’s willing to do that extra bit of work. It could be the principal, it could be a teacher, it can be a parent. But to me, that’s how you get it started. Someone who is willing to try something different. And Sarah is a great example of a Cyber Champion.”

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