Newswise — The University of Arkansas at Little Rock will help create a free cybersecurity curriculum for Arkansas high school students as part of a new partnership announced Dec. 9 at UA Little Rock’s College of Engineering and Information Technology. 

The Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) Office of Computer Science will partner with UA Little Rock, the Arch Ford Education Service Cooperative’s Virtual Arkansas division, and the University of Central Arkansas to develop a three-year cybersecurity curriculum and course pathway.

This curriculum, which is set to begin in the 2020-21 school year, will support teachers and students through increasingly rigorous and relevant cybersecurity concepts leading to more Arkansas students being prepared for industry recognized certifications and to enter post-secondary cybersecurity programs.

To support this partnership, ADE is providing $94,500. The grant is part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s coding initiative, which is funded with a $2.5 million annual commitment by the Arkansas State Legislature.

“Once again, Arkansas’s educational institutions are demonstrating their commitment to providing our students with high quality educational opportunities that will prepare them for the job market they will soon be entering into,” Gov. Hutchinson said. “As our state moves forward in our computer science and computing initiative, we will remain focused on preparing our students for the high paying and open career opportunities that are out there like those in cybersecurity.”

Arch Ford Education Service cooperative will subgrant $25,000 to the UA Little Rock Department of Computer Science and the Emerging Analytics Center to facilitate CyberGym existing module expansion and refinement and new module development as approved by the ADE Office of Computer Science. 

UA Little Rock’s new CyberGym, an education and simulation model laboratory for cybersecurity learning hosted on the cloud, will provide educational materials for the first two years of the high school cybersecurity classes. The third-year curriculum will be provided by UCA’s Cyber Range.

“The CyberGym has been developed by the faculty in computer science along with the team in the Emerging Analytics Center as a set of modules on a broad range of cybersecurity concepts that school teachers and students can then access to enhance their classroom experience,” UA Little Rock Chancellor Christina Drale said. “With our partners here today, we are providing for all Arkansas K-12 schools a curriculum pipeline in cybersecurity that will provide the skills students need to be prepared for industry recognized certifications and to be prepared to enter post-secondary cybersecurity programs. Preparing Arkansas students for the jobs of tomorrow provides unlimited pathways for their futures.”

Arch Ford will subgrant an additional $25,000 to the UA Little Rock Department of Computer Science and the Emerging Analytics Center to provide payments to qualified work-study students to provide technical support and content development to Arkansas educators accessing the UA Little Rock CyberGym system.

Dr. Albert Baker, interim chair of UA Little Rock’s Department of Computer Science, said that more cybersecurity students are needed to fill the state’s growing demand for this high-paying field. Average starting salaries for cybersecurity jobs run from $90,000 to $125,000. With nearly 5,000 cybersecurity jobs in Arkansas, there are more than 1,000 that remain unfilled, Baker said.

The new cybersecurity curriculum will be comprised of at least three courses that will provide students instruction in fundamental computer science; introductory through advanced cyber security concepts; online cybersecurity CyberGym modules using the power of Google’s cloud computing services; cybersecurity analyst and specialist tools; and relevant industry identified skills and knowledge expected in the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. 

These courses will be aligned to the ADE Information Security, ADE Advanced Information Security, and National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) standards and will support the students completing the pathway in being prepared to take and pass at least one industry recognized higher level cyber security certification (I.E., CompTIA’s Networking Plus, CompTIA’s Security Plus, CompTIA CySA+) and other interim certifications (I.E., CompTIA’s A+, Microsoft Technology Associate certifications) as deemed appropriate and approved by the Arkansas Department of Education. The courses will also be aligned to the NICE Cybersecurity Workforce Framework,a national-focused resource that categorizes and describes cybersecurity work.

“The greatest cyber-threat to national security is K-12 education,” said Kevin Nolten, director of Academic Outreach for the Cyber Innovation Center and the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center. “Our responsibility as a state and as educators is to align both standards and curricula to cyber-based workforce roles to ensure that students are graduating high school with not only an awareness of cyber but the knowledge, skills and abilities to close the workforce gap that exists in cyber.” 

The ADE Office of Computer Science will collaborate with Virtual Arkansas and an ADE Office of Computer Science approved team of curriculum writers to develop the curriculum, which will include all the resources needed for a beginning computer science teacher to appropriately instruct students in this high-quality content by Aug. 1, 2020.  

Virtual Arkansas will assign a teacher and provide all courses developed under this agreement through its digital delivery platform beginning in the 2020-21 school year. Virtual Arkansas will also provide this curriculum for all courses in “content only” format at no charge to the school, the teachers, or the students. Virtual Arkansas will update the virtually delivered and “content only” curriculum as necessary in accordance with the ADE Information Security and NICE standards.