UA Little Rock Building Cybersecurity Pipeline

UA Little Rock Building Cybersecurity Pipeline
Philip Huff, assistant professor of cybersecurity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock)

Thanks to a $750,000 grant awarded earlier this month, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will be one of the first institutions in the country to offer graduate certificates in cybersecurity education to high school teachers.

It’s the latest step in a statewide, years-long effort to build a cybersecurity talent pipeline to meet the needs of businesses that have struggled to fill those highly paid positions due to a lack of qualified professionals. Higher than average job growth is also expected to continue through 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One obstacle to building the pipeline has been a lack of qualified cybersecurity teachers.

“It’s very difficult to find even cybersecurity talent, let alone people that feel equipped to teach cybersecurity,” Philip Huff, assistant professor of cybersecurity at UA Little Rock, told Arkansas Business last week.

The grant, awarded by the National Security Agency’s National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity program, will allow the university to offer certificates through the new National Cybersecurity Teaching Academy.

The academy, which is set to start offering courses in spring 2022, is a collaboration of 10 institutions in nine states: UA Little Rock, the University of Louisville in Kentucky and DePaul University in Chicago plus their regional and community college partners that will help with curriculum and teacher recruitment. UA Little Rock has partnered with California State University in Sacramento and Estrella Mountain Community College in Avondale, Arizona.

The universities will also work with nonprofit DARK Enterprises of Lafayette, Indiana.

The academy’s first class will be 90 teachers strong — 30 each at UA Little Rock, the University of Louisville and DePaul University, according to Huff.

The 12 credit hours required for the certificates will be offered virtually, mostly during the summer, and for free to teachers who are accepted into the academy. The first Introduction to Cybersecurity Education course will be offered in the spring.

In addition, certified teachers could complete another six credit hours (18 hours total) that will certify them to teach the cybersecurity courses high school students can take for college credit. To do that, teachers must study the working environment for cybersecurity professionals and complete a practicum with local industry partners.

Huff expects it will take a year for the college credit classes for high school students to materialize following the launch of the academy, and he said he couldn’t name potential industry partners yet. He said businesses from the banking and finance, retail and manufacturing sectors have expressed interest in the effort.

Huff’s hope is that building a talent pipeline will lead to innovation in the private sector. “In a few years, I do hope we start to see that emerge, where we have great ideas and cybersecurity startups that originate in Arkansas,” he said.

Both Huff and Sandra Leiterman, managing director of the Cyber Arena at UA Little Rock, said in separate interviews that many teachers are interested in earning cybersecurity certificates. The Cyber Arena is a virtual environment that will be used to deliver the academy’s cybersecurity courses.

“It’s a really exciting computer science problem and so teachers have become engaged,” Huff said. “Teachers are wanting to teach new, innovative things that the students are excited about. … The demand in Arkansas, it’s pretty, pretty high, right, in terms of teachers that want that additional coursework.”

Huff said cybersecurity training is difficult for many teachers to pursue because it is expensive and isn’t offered when they are available, but the academy offers an “easier path.”

He also acknowledged that most current cybersecurity professionals aren’t interested in leaving their lucrative posts to teach. For educators, teaching cybersecurity can offer “a lot of opportunities, both professionally and financially.”

Leiterman said training teachers will help her office encourage more kids to pursue this career earlier in their lives. “It just multiplies our reach, exponentially,” she said. Teachers could share that high-paying cybersecurity jobs won’t necessarily require them to earn a traditional, expensive bachelor’s degree or to leave their communities, she said.

Leiterman also touted UA Little Rock’s other work to build a cybersecurity talent pipeline. “We went from a minor in cybersecurity to a full-on degree program. And now we have the first ever graduate certificate, so we’re very excited that our program keeps building,” she said.