Hacking into the Emerging Field of Cyber Security

A curriculum developed by Maryville faculty, staff and students prepares high school students for careers in a high-demand, high-paying field.

by Janet Edwards

Marissa Cooper, a senior at Jennings Senior High School, talks about protocols, passwords, various types of networks likes LANs and WANs and ethernets and internets, private networks and VPN — and that’s after completing just the first month of class.

Cooper, a student in Chris Sellers’ STEM class, is a member of the NextJenn STEM TEAM and is also enrolled part-time at North Technical High School. In Sellers’ class, she participates in CyberReadySTL, a program offered through Maryville’s Center for Access and Achievement in partnership with Monsanto Fund, which provided support for 80 students and their teachers in the Jennings and Ritenour school districts of St. Louis County. Both districts serve underserved students.

The CyberReadySTL curriculum was designed by Steve Coxon, PhD, associate professor of education; Rebecca Dohrman, PhD, associate professor of communications; Paul Gross, computer scientist; Gretchen Roberts, ’12, program manager; and Maryville cyber security students.

“The districts each receive tens of thousands of dollars in computing and technology equipment to be used in this curriculum,” Dohrman says. “We work closely with teachers to professionally develop them and increase their knowledge, which is essential for a program like this. It multiplies the impact of the program tenfold as those teachers move forward each year with new classes of students eager to learn the curriculum.”

Most students know how to navigate a Microsoft or Mac operating system, Sellers says, but that alone doesn’t teach students how computers actually work. Through the CyberReadySTL curriculum, Sellers says, they learn advanced skills in an engaging way.

“When you figure out how computers work, you can start to build them and engineer and design software,” he says. “Kids grow up with one small world — they know how to get to Windows, but they can’t change permissions, passwords, or add users because the settings are blocked. So Maryville wrote a curriculum where students really start with the basics of a computer operating system.”

“I’m learning a lot about networks,” Cooper continues, following her litany of computer terms. Sellers is still shaking his head as he interrupts his student to address a classroom visitor.

“Hold on, time out—do you hear this?” he asks. “Isn’t it amazing that Marissa comes in here and just starts rolling all those terms out?” In fact, Sellers does a lot of bragging on behalf of his students, who all look forward to spending time in his technology-driven, STEM classroom.

Sellers asks Teresa Prater, a junior, to demonstrate how she created files by implementing line commands — a newly acquired skill for her. “This is a beautiful thing; did you see her head turn?” Sellers asks others standing nearby. “Something didn’t go right so now she’s troubleshooting what she typed wrong because a lot of the program is syntax, and if the syntax is right it works, if it’s wrong, it doesn’t.”

Prater solves the problem quickly. “I like the way that I get to be hands-on with the computer and try to figure it out,” she says. Having participated in a previous program to learn block coding, advanced coding is more challenging — and exciting, she says. Prater wants to become a cyber security analyst, and she knows exactly what it takes to be successful in one of the nation’s emerging and highest-paying career fields.

“You have to be the type of person that solves things using more than one way of thinking,” she says.

Starting salaries for cyber security jobs are expected to approach $90,000, but demand for skilled employees is higher than the number of available workers. In 2016, just over 8 percent of all degrees conferred to African Americans were in STEM fields, and less than 6 percent of total African American employment in 2017 was in the tech industry, reports the National Urban League.

That’s a lot of untapped talent, says Coxon. “We want to prepare young people for the workplace of 2020 and 2030,” he says. “One of Maryville’s core strengths is advancing economic development in the region by creating confidence within young people in some of St. Louis’ high-need districts so they can have the same ambitions and achievements as students born in any other zip code.”

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Maryville Magazine.

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