Mar 28 2022

Q&A: How the National Security Agency is Building the Next Generation of Cyber Stars

Ashley Greeley, K–12 project lead for GenCyber, is bringing cybersecurity career pathways and professional development to schools across the country.

It’s never too early to learn about cybersecurity, but after the National Security Agency saw how many K–12 schools lack the resources to educate students about this critical area, it is working to change that. As the K–12 project lead at the NSA’s National Cryptologic School, Ashley Greeley and her team are focused on building pathways for students to pursue college and career opportunities in cybersecurity.

Among other initiatives, Greeley oversees GenCyber, a federally funded program for students and teachers that is supported by the NSA and National Science Foundation. GenCyber is aligned with the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity; a designation program that includes over 350 colleges, universities and community colleges whose cybersecurity curriculum meets rigorous academic achievement standards. She spoke with EdTech about the value of early outreach and the high demand for cybersecurity professional development.

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EDTECH: What is your background, and how did you get involved with GenCyber?

Greeley: I have 15 years of classroom experience, including teaching Advanced Placement U.S. history and U.S. government, and I spent about 20 years coaching basketball. GenCyber launched in 2014 as a pilot, and I started working with them in a support role in 2015.

I love teaching, and I wasn’t looking to leave the classroom, but I grew to love cybersecurity education. Since 2018, I’ve worked at the National Cryptologic School at the NSA.

EDTECH: What is the goal of GenCyber?

Greeley: GenCyber is a federally supported program that gives grants to postsecondary institutions to host student, teacher or student/teacher programs in cybersecurity. We’re looking at a shortfall of about half a million cybersecurity positions in the United States. So, this program works to make better cybersecurity citizens and, hopefully, teach students who are interested in cybersecurity that there is a career out there for them.

One of the greatest things about cybersecurity is that it is multidisciplinary. It’s for STEM students, but also for liberal arts-minded students. A lot of times, GenCyber is the first touchpoint for students and teachers in cybersecurity.

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EDTECH: What is the format of the camp?

Greeley: My favorite part of GenCyber is that every program looks different because it is based on the local K–12 ecosystem. A GenCyber program in Northern Virginia is going to look a lot different than a GenCyber program in Iowa.

Each institution must have certain pillars. We require that they base their curriculum on six principles: confidentiality, integrity, availability, defense in depth, thinking like an adversary and keeping it simple. We also require that they teach cyber ethics, and they must have at least one unit on careers.

EDTECH: How long are the camp sessions?

Greeley: Historically, they’ve been weeklong summer camps. We now require institutions to also host pre-camp and post-camp events. We’re trying to build more year-round engagement, particularly since we know that K–12 cybersecurity opportunities for students and teachers are still somewhat scarce.

EDTECH: Why it is important to start cybersecurity education early?

Greeley: In my opinion, it’s never too early, because students are getting devices at younger and younger ages. Anytime students have access to devices, cybersecurity conversations should occur. Because we partner with higher education institutions and focus on college and career readiness, we focus more on middle and high school students.

56%

The percentage of students whose first opportunity to learn about cybersecurity or rekindle an existing interest was at a GenCyber camp

Source: GenCyber, “5-Year Evaluation, 2015–2019,” April 2021

EDTECH: How is GenCyber expanding access for groups that historically haven’t been well represented in cybersecurity?

Greeley: We want to bring GenCyber to areas that don’t have a lot of cybersecurity education opportunities. Some of our host institutions focus on female participants or underrepresented minorities. We’ve had programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, visually impaired students and Native American students.

EDTECH: What kind of feedback do you get from participants?

Greeley: I visited a camp for visually impaired students, and it’s so neat to watch them learn cybersecurity. One student said to me, “I’d be a great penetration tester because I’m so used to finding problems in technology, because it’s not made for visually impaired people.” She’s already got her career lined up.

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EDTECH: GenCyber has grown to more than 150 camps in almost every state. Is part of that growth fueled by meeting teachers’ need for cybersecurity training?

Greeley: Teachers are hungry for this because they understand its importance and that this is an opportunity for their students. A lot of teachers don’t have cybersecurity as part of their own education, so we teach them about the content, the tools and classroom methodologies so they can instill that information in their students. If you can reach one teacher, on average, you can reach 100 to 150 students.

EDTECH: For kids who want to continue with cybersecurity, what happens after the camp?

Greeley: We’re developing a pathway for students, in part through our alignment with the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity program. Participants also start to build a local community. We have lots of stories of students who go through GenCyber as participants and are then asked to be on staff. Then, they enroll at the host institution and end up getting a degree in computer science or cybersecurity.

EDTECH: What happens after students leave the GenCyber camps?

Greeley: We’re developing a pathway for students, in part through our alignment with the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity program. Participants also start to build a local community. We have lots of stories of students who go through GenCyber as participants and are then asked to be on staff. Then, they enroll at the host institution and end up getting a degree in computer science or cybersecurity.

Ashley Greeley
They know what ransomware is, they understand precautions, they’re able to teach online safety to friends and family.”

Ashley Greeley K–12 Project Lead, National Cryptologic School, National Security Agency

And for students who don’t go on to pursue a cybersecurity career, they are learning about online safety. They know what ransomware is, they understand precautions and they’re able to teach online safety to friends and family. Ultimately, they are fulfilling a key goal of the program: to improve the overall cybersecurity posture of the nation.

EDTECH: How can readers learn more about getting their students and teachers involved in GenCyber?

Greeley: Visit gen-cyber.com for a list of more than 100 host institutions that will offer camps this summer. Educators work directly with the host institutions to apply or request information.

Photography by Jimell Greene; cnythzl/Getty Images (icons)

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