CyberWatch Grows as a Center for Cybersecurity Education

by Janet Pinkerton | Oct 19, 2011

Since its founding via a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in 2005, CyberWatch, the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Center headquartered at Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) in Largo, Md., has had one mission: to improve the cybersecurity workforce in both quality and quantity of workers.

The NSF funded CyberWatch, along with two other ATE Centers (The Cyber Security Education Consortium in Oklahoma and the Center for System Security and Information Assurance at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill.) to drive NSF’s cybersecurity education effort at the community college level. As such, CyberWatch has become a hub for cybersecurity information, curriculum and training.

“The single most important thing that we do for our members is that our consortium functions as a network for people working to improve cybersecurity education in this country,” said Dr. Robert Spear, CyberWatch’s PI (principal investigator) and director.

Powered by a small staff, four co-PIs and committed representatives from within the consortium (whom Spear has dubbed “the coalition of the willing”), CyberWatch works towards its mission through five inter-related goals:

  • Curriculum development (primarily for community colleges)
  • Faculty development (at both college and high school level)
  • Student development (including student competitions and internships)
  • An extensive K-12 program to raise cybersecurity awareness among students and staff, bolster STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curricula, and encourage student exploration into the cybersecurity profession as a possible career choice
  • Dissemination and outreach about the cybersecurity profession

CyberWatch helps community colleges strengthen existing information assurance and cybersecurity programs and build new ones from the ground up. In addition, CyberWatch is working to expand student cybersecurity competitions at the high school and even middle school levels. “We found that really focuses attention of students and faculty,” said Spear. “We’re beginning to see many more cybersecurity-related career and tech-ed type tracks at the 11th and 12th grade levels.”

Meeting a Need

CyberWatch evolved out of PGCC’s long-term commitment to educating cybersecurity workers required by defense and intelligence government agencies and contractors in central Maryland. From CyberWatch’s original consortium of 10 institutions, primarily community colleges from the Washington, D.C. metro area, the consortium has grown to 76 member institutions (45 community colleges and 31 universities) in 26 states. CyberWatch’s formal partners now include 35 businesses, industry associations (including CompTIA) and government agencies. Through CyberWatch, Spear works with CompTIA and other IT credentialing organizations to strengthen the connection between cybersecurity curricula and IT certifications. “What ought to exist is a more direct tie between academic preparation and industrial certifications,” Spear said, adding “Our job in education ultimately should be to offer the training to students that will allow them to function effectively in the cybersecurity arena.”

The National End Goal

Spear has a clear-eyed view of CyberWatch’s potential impact. “Our vision is that, through CyberWatch and its sister organizations, and the other national associations like CompTIA, in 10 years, the cybersecurity profession will be identified and recognized as a profession. And that our colleges and training institutions will be turning out the workforce that’s needed to satisfy the nation’s shortage of cybersecurity workers,” he said.

He adds that “CyberWatch itself will not create this, but we think that we will be part of the national dialogue and part of the solution.”

Indeed, CyberWatch in October will apply to the NSF to become the NSF National Center for Cybersecurity Education. After a due-diligence process, the NSF’s decision about the proposal is expected in spring/summer 2012, said Spear. If the NSF accepts CyberWatch’s proposal to become a national center for cybersecurity education, Spear said, “We will continue doing many of the things we already do; but with a national mandate, our reach will be broader and our potential effectiveness will be enhanced.”

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