State senate cybersecurity committee meets with Augusta-area education leaders

Angela Pringle (left), superintendent of Richmond County schools, and Sandra Carraway, superintendent of Columbia County schools, shared insights with the Senate Study Committee on Cyber Security Education.

Augusta-area education leaders told a state committee that they’re up to the challenge of growing the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

 

The Senate Study Committee on Cyber Security Education, comprised of state officials and education experts, convened for the first time Wednesday at Augusta University. Its members include state Sens. Harold Jones (D-Augusta) and Lee Anderson (R-Grovetown).

The committee was created March 28 with the adoption of Senate Resolution 454, which empowers an appointed group “to study the current and future implementation of a cybersecurity curriculum in Georgia high schools.”

Augusta is a growing focal point of cyber activity. Fort Gordon, already home to the Army’s largest cyber training center, will become the home of the U.S. Army’s Cyber Command by 2020. Also, the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center – designed to promote modernization in cybersecurity through public-private partnerships – is under construction on Reynolds Street downtown.

As the cyber sector grows – and the Augusta area with it – local educators are positioning their student bodies toward more cyber-related training to help satisfy the needs of an expected bigger workforce.

“Some of us who live in other parts of the state want to duplicate what you’re doing here. I applaud you for that,” state Sen. Bruce Thompson told meeting attendees. He chairs the study committee.

Zach Kelehear is dean of AU’s College of Education. He told the committee that AU provides professional development not only to current teachers but also to students aspiring to become teachers.

It develops around STEAM and STEM. STEM stands for science, technology engineering and math – the collective term for tailored instruction in that block of academic disciplines. STEAM is STEM with an “A” added to incorporate the arts.

AU collaborates with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission to issue “endorsements” to existing and graduating teachers that certify their competence in instructing STEAM and STEM subjects. AU also hopes to incorporate a computer science endorsement for K-12 teachers.

AU partners with 62 Augusta-area schools in which the university’s education students sharpen their teaching skills by presenting material to students already familiar with technology.

“We’re finding our students – this won’t surprise you – are often more ahead in technological skills than some of the teachers,” Kelehear said. “So were trying fast to stay up with them.”

Many grade-school students today are starting to write computer code, build programmable robots and even experiment with three-dimensional printers.

“This is a whole new realm of what teaching is in this century, in this community,” Kelehear said. “It’s become more of a standard expectation.”

Richmond County School Superintendent Angela Pringle told the committee how her school system is in its third year of teaching classes providing a cybersecurity career pathway – and what educators have learned.

Competition is stiff when looking for qualified expert teachers in cyber education, she said, and the system is fortunate to have the teachers it has.

Richmond County helps feed that teaching need by being a Strategic Waivers School System. That’s a state designation under which school districts get more flexibility in choosing teachers who might be more professionally qualified than academically qualified. For example, a cybersecurity expert might not have a teaching degree or even a teaching certificate. In exchange, the district becomes more accountable for improved student performance.

“It’s a challenge. We’re competing with people who can go out and make significantly more money,” Pringle said. “We’re asking them to teach for half the dollars they could earn elsewhere.”

Richmond County educators also concluded that cybersecurity students could perform stronger if they learn sooner.

“There were some discussions we had around, ‘Yes, we have students in high school now participating in the pathway, but we really have to start with our fifth-graders, our fourth-graders,’” Pringle said. ‘What do they need to know to actively participate in the cyber pathway?’ ”

Columbia County School Superintendent Sandra Carraway agreed. Her school system has a 90 percent graduation rate, but said that sometimes students who don’t complete school can go on to become some of the best cyber workers.

“Our goal is to push down cyber learning so we can turn kids on at an earlier age,” she said.

That includes introducing keyboarding instruction in elementary school, to get pupils more acquainted with the mechanics of cyber work if they choose to pursue other cyber classes as they grow older.

Several agencies assist the school system in advancing cyber.

The National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center – an arm of the Cyber Innovation Center in Bossier City, La. – is training 35 Columbia high-school teachers in computer science. On Nov. 1, 40 middle-school teachers are scheduled to begin training.

The National Math and Science Initiative awarded the Columbia County school system a $2.7 million grant to pay qualified students to take Advanced Placement tests that would grant those students college credits.

The school system also works closely with Fort Gordon. Thirty-four teams of students countywide participate in CyberPatriot, the National Youth Cyber Education Program created by the Air Force Association to inspire students toward cybersecurity careers. The teams compete with one another nationwide to solve mock cybersecurity challenges. Several Fort Gordon brigades work with Columbia County teachers who in turn work with the teams.

“Not only are we creating the workforce for cyber as it grows across our nation, but we also have both the trust and confidence of the people coming in that their children will get an outstanding education,” Carraway said.

 

Reach Joe Hotchkiss at (706) 823-3543 or joe.hotchkiss@augustachronicle.com.

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