Today synED, a national non-profit organization that identifies emerging best practices for effective articulation between employers, job seekers, and education providers, announced that Kevin Nolten, Director of Academic Outreach for CYBER.ORG, is this month’s CyberHero.
Kevin leads CYBER.ORG, a national nonprofit based in Bossier City, Louisiana, that seeks to empower educators as they prepare the next generation to succeed in the cyber workforce of tomorrow. CYBER.ORG provides cybersecurity education resources and training to educators across the country, and develops curricula for K-12 schools that span cybersecurity, math, robotics, coding, and more.
CYBER.ORG also fosters tighter relationships within communities, bringing together education, industry, and government leaders. Importantly, they provide hands-on experience to students through camps and competitions, giving students a head start on the real-world experience that is a game-changer in securing cybersecurity positions in the future.
Currently there are 24 curricula for kindergarten through high school, all provided free of charge with no strings attached. Teachers can use any portion or module from a curriculum, or all of one. “We want to provide the ultimate flexibility – to the state, to the district, to the school, to the teacher,” Kevin said.
Kevin has led the organization since 2014, when CYBER.ORG was providing resources to about 700 teachers and 100,000 students. At latest count, they’ve now reached all 50 states and more than 25,000 educators and 3.4 million students.
“What my goal has always been is to create a workforce in each of our respective states that allows students to want to stay. When we look at our obligation as K-12 educators, we have to support the economic growth of our community and our state,” Kevin said. “I don’t want our exports to be our student capital.”
One of the first statewide education agencies that CYBER.ORG partnered with is North Dakota’s EduTech. When Rosi Kloberdanz, Director of the North Dakota K-12 education technology and professional development agency, began to coalesce a group of more than 40 North Dakota public and private sector partners around the goal of preparing every student to succeed in a digital world – the K-20W Cyber Education and Workforce Initiative – CYBER.ORG was the first strategic partner she brought in.
“Our Department of Education was on board immediately with CYBER.ORG because their integrated curriculum, with different academic disciplines, is the secret to ensuring that our educators can do what they need to do in terms of teaching cybersecurity,” said Ms. Kloberdanz. “Our teachers ask, ‘what do I have to give up in order to teach cybersecurity?’ With the CYBER.ORG curriculum, they don’t have to give up anything, they need to teach differently by integrating it into what they are already teaching.”
In August, CYBER.ORG published universal K-12 Cybersecurity Learning Standards, something that has been lacking in the United States. The standards are free and will be updated frequently to keep up with an evolving cybersecurity field. CYBER.ORG is working with K-12 school districts across the country, as well as state and local governments, to implement the new standards.
Many of CYBER.ORG‘s staff are former educators who first learned about the organization when they utilized its offerings or partnered on curriculum development. For instance, Willie Henderson, a Cyber Education Specialist at CYBER.ORG, was a local high school administrator.
“Kevin’s energy is infectious,” said Mr. Henderson. “His outlook, that positivity that he carries himself with spills over to the team. He sets that tone. It makes it a very relaxed, very respectful, ‘everybody has a voice’ environment.”
CYBER.ORG is primarily funded through Federal government grants, the largest source being CISA – the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency. Beginning in 2011, CISA has funded CYBER.ORG‘s cybersecurity curriculum development, education, and professional development efforts, which are provided free of charge to educators around the country.
“I’ve always had an interest and a love for educators,” added Mr. Nolten. “I think about my K-12 experience, and I can still name probably 95 percent of the teachers I had going through elementary, middle and high school. Many of them I still have a relationship with. Simply because of the mindset that they have and their desire to help invest in the future of our country.”
The schools and school districts that receive support run the gamut from urban to rural, low-income to high-income, and everywhere in between. That said, 64 percent of the teachers served by CYBER.ORG are in Title 1 schools – those where more than 40 percent of the student population come from low-income households.
CYBER.ORG itself began in 2011 after a successful local cybersecurity workforce development effort in Northern Louisiana, which the Federal government decided to fund and expand to other parts of the country. Like many regions of the United States, one of Louisiana’s largest exports is its brightest students.
“When you talk about CyberHeroes, Kevin and CYBER.ORG are those CyberHeroes,” added Ms. Kloberdanz. “Not only for our kids, but they understand that it’s our teachers and communities that need to be prepared.”
Equitable access to cybersecurity education is a major focus of CYBER.ORG‘s work. In a pilot project in their own backyard of Northern Louisiana called Project REACH, CYBER.ORG is seeking to diversify the cybersecurity industry by introducing Caddo Parish high schoolers to the potential of cybersecurity careers.
They partnered with nearby Grambling State University, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), to identify top feeder high schools in the Shreveport area that would receive new cybersecurity labs and programs, with the goal of having hundreds of students graduate from Grambling with an undergraduate degree in cybersecurity. To make the program truly successful, not only will the students earn their degrees, but they will have gained hands-on experience through internships and mentorships.
In the first year, 575 African American students have made verbal commitments to attend Grambling for a cybersecurity degree. Ninety-five percent of those students would be first generation college graduates. Now, CYBER.ORG is seeking to expand the project to 10 to 15 more HBCUs around the country. After that, the goal will be to expand it to other Minority Serving Institutions nationally.
“If we can get students from those underserved communities finding meaningful jobs right out of college, that to me is a game changer,” continued Mr. Nolten.
For Kevin and CYBER.ORG, one of their biggest priorities is keeping up to date with evolving standards in the cybersecurity industry. They update their resources at least annually, but also have an eye on the future: CYBER.ORG is working on rolling out education resources in the fields of Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, data science, blockchain, and cryptography/crypto-math.
These cutting edge fields may seem futuristic or too advanced for high school students, but Mr. Nolten knows that the seeds planted today will bear fruit decades from now. The dire need for cybersecurity professionals now, Mr. Nolten contends, can be traced back to a lack of commitment to K-12 cybersecurity education 10 to 15 years ago.
“When we go out for a hike in the forest, those trees were not planted yesterday. Those trees were planted decades or centuries ago, either by people or nature. It’s our job to start planting those seeds and nurture them through maturity,” concluded Mr. Nolten.