Colorado Springs elevates women and minorities in cyber education

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(Courtesy National Cybersecurity Center)

Thomas Holt Russell will tell you Colorado Springs is becoming a national center for cyber education.

“We have a support system that’s unique among other cities of our size,” says Russell, director of cyber education at the National Cybersecurity Center. “Our military bases bring a lot of companies, a lot of expertise, a lot of experience into our community.”

Colorado Springs’ cyber education ecosystem is “a magical mix” that includes local school districts, colleges and universities, and other organizations and associations, says Gretchen Bliss, director of cybersecurity programs at UCCS.

When Chris Inglis, President Joe Biden’s top cybersecurity officer, visited Colorado Springs in May for the opening of UCCS’ newly renovated O’Neil Cybersecurity Education and Research Center, he was impressed by the area’s unique ecosystem, she says.

“He told the chancellor, ‘Everybody talks about interdisciplinary cybersecurity, but this is the first place I’ve actually seen it happening,’” Bliss says. “So I do believe we’re being seen as a leader in the nation.”

Pikes Peak State College has seen a 22 percent increase in the number of students enrolled in cyber courses during the current academic year, compared with last year, and a 32 percent increase in students enrolled in cyber-related courses this semester vs. spring 2022, says Mike Krakow, director of cybersecurity. 

We need to introduce students to cybersecurity as early as possible. — Thomas Holt Russell

The college has more than tripled the number of degrees awarded in cybersecurity in the past five years and doubled the number of certificates awarded, he says.

These cybersecurity education leaders actively recruit women and minorities, who are underrepresented in the cybersecurity workforce.

Cybersecurity Ventures, which publishes Cybercrime Magazine, estimates that women hold only 25 percent of cybersecurity jobs globally. And according to a report by Aspen Digital Tech Policy, only 9 percent of U.S. cybersecurity experts are Black, 8 percent are Asian and 4 percent are Hispanic.

Lawrence Wagner, CEO and founder of Spark Mindset, has devoted himself to changing those statistics.

“We look to work with people of color, with women, military veterans and spouses,” says Wagner, whose company provides cybersecurity training, registered pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. “The people who need to be in these careers the most do not understand how to get into these careers. These people are not just going to come to us, so we have to go to them.”

Associate degrees

Citing figures from data analysis organization Cyber Seek, Krakow says about 770,000 cybersecurity job openings currently exist in the United States and around 25,000 in Colorado.

Pikes Peak State College offers associate degrees in cybersecurity and networking and multiple certificate programs. The college has earned a National Center of Academic Excellence designation in cyber defense through the National Security Agency.

PPSC works with Colorado State University Pueblo and UCCS to provide pathways for students to transfer to these four-year institutions and is in the planning stages to add its own four-year bachelor of applied science cybersecurity degree.

The college also participates in the PUENTE Project, a nationwide effort to increase enrollment of educationally underrepresented students.

Since PPSC received a PUENTE grant in 2020, the number of credits taken by Hispanic students in cyber-related courses has increased by 85 percent, Krakow says.

“We currently have 20 percent female and 33 percent who identify as a race other than white” in the cybersecurity associate program, he says.

While 20 percent female participation may not sound like a lot, “it’s a pretty good number in a male-dominated program.”

PPSC is reaching out to school districts with marketing campaigns that target Hispanic students and girls and developing pathways between high schools and the college, he said.

It’s also growing its participation in the National Cyber League, a performance-based cybersecurity competition in which students solve practical cybersecurity challenges.

“We had 90 students participate in NCL last semester,” Krakow says, “and it looks like we will have over 100 this semester.”

Holistic view

UCCS also has been designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in cyber defense.

Nine undergraduate and graduate degrees and three certificate programs that provide the technical foundation for cybersecurity are offered in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

“But we really see it more holistically,” Bliss says. “No matter what job you’re going to go into, you have to understand cyber and your role in it.”

That’s why UCCS has built cybersecurity into programs in the College of Public Service; College of Business; College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; and College of Education. In all, 20 degree and certificate programs include cybersecurity components.

“We’re doing cybersecurity awareness training for teachers as they go out into the classroom, because that’s another place to have that conversation,” Bliss says.

Diversity is among the core principles of UCCS’ cybersecurity strategy, she says.

The university has launched a Women in Cybersecurity student chapter and will be sponsoring a summit for the seven chapters in the state.

“They will get to talk to people in the industry,” Bliss says, “particularly women and minorities that are in those positions right now.”

The university also has supported several initiatives to increase participation of Hispanic students, including a wraparound program in the College of Engineering and Applied Science for those who may need support such as mentoring.

Students absorb cybersecurity concepts at NCC. (Courtesy National Cybersecurity Center)

“We do a lot of K-12 outreach,” Bliss says. “We do cyber camps in the summer, where we target underserved populations across our geographic area. We also have a teacher cyber camp where we target those in underserved districts so they can bring that conversation around cybersecurity to high school and middle school students.

“Studies have shown that we lose diversity in tech and cybersecurity in middle school,” she says, “so we’re trying to bring that conversation to where the decisions are being made.”

Starting early

The nonprofit National Cybersecurity Center provides free and low-cost training and education for K-12 students and adults, including classes and summer cyber camps, among other missions.

“We need to introduce students to cybersecurity as early as possible,” Russell says. For women and minorities, “if you don’t introduce them to cybersecurity at an early age, it’s going to be more and more difficult to gain their interests as the years go by.”

Russell initiated a structured training program in School District 49 that led to industry-level certification, and the NCC is opening a classroom at the new Family Success Center in Harrison District 2 to provide cyber education for K-12 students.

“We also started the Capture the Flag competition, which is one of the best recruiting methods because it comes in a game-type format,” he says. The NCC also is one of 16 U.S. centers of excellence for CyberPatriot, the world’s largest cyber competition.

“CyberPatriot has been very important to introduce a whole generation of students to cybersecurity,” he says.

NCC had the first all-female CyberPatriot team in Colorado, says Russell, who adds that he uses a different approach to appeal to female students.

“Boys just want to sit down and play with the computer,” he says. “Girls want to know why we are doing this, what’s it going to lead to and what it’s going to look like at the end. I found that when I used this purposeful learning approach, they have a very big buy-in.”

Russell thinks it’s time for school districts to consider making cybersecurity and other STEM courses part of the common core curriculum.

“Cybersecurity is embedded in everything we do,” he says. “But in most schools cybersecurity is an elective, although the kids use it every single day of their lives.”

Sparking interest

Spark Mindset provides virtual registered apprenticeship programs for high school students and adults.

Students develop their skills in a seven-month pre-apprenticeship program to earn CompTIA, Network+ and/or Security+ certification. Then they enter a 15-month apprenticeship program that enables them to work virtually for an employer.

Twenty-three students currently are in various stages of the program, Wagner says, and Spark Mindset is taking applications for the next cohort, which begins March 6. Applications are at

People of color and women often have not learned as children that well-paying cyber careers are a possibility for them, he says.

“A lot of people don’t think they’re smart enough to get these nice jobs, so you have to go to them and let them know that they are smart, they are worthy of a livable wage,” he says. “We know they may need a little additional assistance to help get them through our program and into the apprenticeship program.”

Wagner agrees that cybersecurity and STEM career fields should be introduced in schools at earlier ages. To attract women and minorities, young people need to “see people who look like them and can affirm that they can do it too,” he says.

“Both of them are needed in today’s cybersecurity because we need people who think differently. And if we can’t get those people, the bad guys will continue to be two or three steps ahead of us.”

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