On the way into work at McKinley Technology High School, Melanie Wiscount drives past the Pentagon. When she looks out the window of the lunchroom, she sees the Washington Monument. Situated in the nation’s capital, Wiscount and her students are surrounded by the worlds of government and national defense – areas ever more in need of certified cybersecurity professionals with each passing year. Washington, D.C., is the perfect place for a year-long cybersecurity course like the one Wiscount teaches at McKinley, which is built around innovative, hands-on learning and finishes out the with CompTIA Security+ exam.
For Wiscount, who has been a teacher at McKinley for three years, teaching cybersecurity goes far beyond just learning in a classroom. She teaches her students how to identify cybersecurity flaws that have proliferated in recent years alongside our growing dependence on computing and mobility. The world of phishing scams and rogue access points, bluejacking and bluesnarfing has made cyberspace a dangerous place in the era of ubiquitous connectivity. She even has her students create their own – carefully controlled – versions of some of these exploits, because much of learning to outsmart hackers is in understanding how they think.
“I want them to be like detectives,” Wiscount said. “They see something and right away the security flag goes up. I want to build a conscientiousness in them that has to do with security. I say to them, ‘You’re the security specialist in your family, you have to go out there and teach.’”
Wiscount’s cybersecurity course offers a unique learning experience, and McKinley is likewise a unique place to learn. The school is 59 percent free and reduced lunch, and as a National Academy Foundation school, focuses a great deal on bridging the gap between education and career preparedness. In addition to promoting STEM learning and IT certification, the school prepares students on practical matters like how to dress for an interview and the importance of being punctual.
But the students in Wiscount’s classroom have the same relationship with technology that others of their generation do when they walk into class on the first day. They are technologically savvy insofar as tools like Vine and Instagram are foundational to their social life, but barely aware of the security risks at play, or the IT protocols for securing them. By the time the year is up, though, they have both a better understanding of IT security and, ideally, the Security+ certification to prove it.
As serious as Wiscount is about getting her students to understand what’s at stake in the new cybersecurity landscape, she is equally serious about test preparation. When the time approaches for students to take the Security+ exam, she makes certain that her students are comfortable in a test-taking environment and with the test’s pacing alongside mastering the information. One school year she had 50 percent of her students pass Security+, including two freshmen. Such successes have not gone unnoticed by people high up in the world of cybersecurity.
Recently the Army Knowledge Leaders, an organization of civilians employed by the Army, appeared at McKinley to speak to students about how to pursue a job in one of the many cybersecurity-related fields open to them. The speakers drove home the point to the students that certifications opened career doors like nothing else could, and that the students should absolutely pursue certification when they got to college. Wiscount happily raised her hand and offered a bit of clarification.
“I told them that the students are already getting [CompTIA certifications] at the high school level,” Wiscount said. “They were blown away.”
Many of the other contractors and companies in Washington, D.C.’s burgeoning cybersecurity job market have likewise taken note of the high school’s high rate of students eager to get into the cybersecurity field with Security+ certification already in hand. Wiscount’s students have found placement in some truly impressive internships, taking on roles at companies like Lockheed-Martin, Microsoft and Accenture. Accenture, in fact, raised the number of interns they accept from the school because of the students’ impressive skill levels.
Wiscount often attends cybersecurity summits to further understand the needs of the cybersecurity landscape, and is always trying to get the number of students certified as close as she can to 100 percent. She has also had figures as prominent as acting secretary of education John King appear in her classroom – big names who are enthusiastic about McKinley’s model and who discuss with students and educators alike the program’s cybersecurity success.
Wiscount has seen her students benefit greatly in the form of both knowledge and professional clout from their receiving Security+ certifications so early in their careers. But there’s one thing – perhaps less obvious – that CompTIA certifications impart to the young computer enthusiasts in Wiscount’s classes, the value of which cannot be matched.
“When I introduce my students and say ‘Oh, they passed the CompTIA Security+ test last year’ – immediate respect,” Wiscount said. “When my kids see that in someone’s expression and their words, that also validates why we do what we do here at McKinley.”
Matthew Stern is a freelance writer based in Chicago who covers information technology, retail and various other topics and industries.