Pilot program substantiates efforts to introduce students in rural Alabama to cybersecurity

summerschool students

The CCRE’s Expanding Cybersecurity Innovative Incubator to Extended Demographics program introduces high school students from rural areas of the state to the field of cybersecurity and helps prepare them to pursue a degree in the field.

Though initially established to introduce high school students in rural Alabama to the field of cybersecurity, the Expanding Cybersecurity Innovative Incubator to Extended Demographics (ExCIITED) program has managed to do much more over the course of its first year. Indeed, not only did 16 members of its initial cohort successfully complete the program’s requirements, but three of its four seniors will also be attending UAH this fall. "I am very pleased with the success of the program and students," says Sharon Johnson, the program’s coordinator. "They have performed beautifully."

Funded until now by a grant from the National Security Agency, ExCIITED is administered by employees at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education (CCRE). As part of the program, participants complete an "Engineering 101" (ENG 101) class to familiarize them with the fundamental principles of programming. Then the students spend several weeks over the summer as interns with the CCRE’s Cyber Force Incubator (CFI), working on a collection of contract and grant-funded projects. A handful are also chosen to begin certification training and the security clearance process. "Ultimately," says Johnson, "we would like to match these students with employers."

Participants for this year’s pilot program were recruited last fall, with Johnson traveling to high schools in rural counties across the state to seek recommendations from teachers and counselors. She also reached out to several attendees of last summer’s inaugural U.S. Cyber Camp, a partnership between UAH and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center to give high school students hands-on experience in cyber technology. By November, she had selected the program’s first cohort – 20 students from eight counties; a month later, they convened at UAH for a one-day orientation and campus tour. "Only two of the 20 had taken calculus, which is a prerequisite for ENG 101, but we were able to work around that by assigning online exercises throughout the spring to teach them the calculus principles necessary for the class," says Johnson, a principal research engineer with CCRE and a UAH engineering alumna.

By summer, 16 of the 20 original students were able to successfully enroll in ENG 101, returning to campus for several days in early June to begin the course in person with instructor SueAnne Griffith, a research associate with the CCRE and a Ph.D. candidate in UAH’s electrical engineering program. "While the whole course can be taken online, we wanted them to start in the classroom with the instructor, so they could ask questions and work out any issues," says Johnson. During their time on campus, the students also toured several of UAH’s high-tech labs and research centers, took part in a working lunch meeting, and attended the 2018 National Cyber Summit, among other activities. "In addition," says Johnson, "ten students were chosen to work in the CFI for the summer, getting hands-on experience applying cybersecurity principles to real-world systems."

Once the internship portion is complete, in mid-August, the students will have one last requirement to fulfill: sharing a presentation of their ExCIITED experience with their teachers, counselors, and peers when they return to their respective schools. Johnson, however, doesn’t need to wait that long to get an idea of whether the program has been a success. Several students have already shared their feedback, including Sparkman High School senior Abi Kunkle, West Morgan High School senior Christian Martin, and Clements High School senior Tristan Wildharber, all of whom will be attending UAH in the fall.

"With ExCIITED I’ve been able to learn stuff that I don’t get to learn at my high school because we don’t have these types of classes," says Kunkle. "I got really into understanding cybersecurity, and it became something that I was extremely interested in." The same is true for Martin, who adds that "just having the opportunity to be exposed to what I had never seen before is really great for me." Wildharber, meanwhile, appreciates the long-term advantages offered by the program. "It sets us up for life because we are able to get our security clearances, and we’re able to take college classes before we actually get to college," he says. "And being able to network is useful because we meet a lot of people in the cybersecurity field – people who could potentially be employers."

Whether other students from the state’s rural counties will have the same opportunity going forward, however, depends on Johnson’s ability to secure a second year of funding for the program. But she remains optimistic, buoyed by the knowledge that her efforts are helping expand the horizons of students who might otherwise have no exposure to one of the fastest-growing job fields of the global economy. Johnson concludes, "I’ve always been interested in teaching skills to students at an earlier age and getting them interested in the field of cybersecurity."


Sharon Johnson

Dr. Tommy Morris