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Catonsville High cyber team members prepare for the future

Catonsville High students learn about the growing field of cyber security

As his three fellow students watched, Eric Appelbaum, 17, attempted to install an intrusion detection system on a computer in a classroom at Catonsville High School.

"He's having a lot of network issues," said Daniel Votipka, 26, a member of the Marine Corps who works for the National Security Agency (NSA).

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Votipka sat next to Appelbaum, offering words of encouragement as a series of error messages popped up on the screen.

Votipka was helping students, members of the school's Cyber Team, prepare for the final round of the Maryland Cyber Challenge, a statewide cyber security competition that will be held Oct. 29-30.

"They'll have computers they have to set up in a network," Votipka said. "They have to watch for weird network traffic."

The growing use of the Internet in daily functions of government and business transactions has increased the demand for those who are knowledgeable about maintaining the security of computer networks.

The school's cyber team, where students learn how to protect networks from hackers and other cyber intruders, is one way to prepare them for a future in cyber security.

Some students see cyber competitions as a "game", said Christina Morris, a business education teacher and sponsor of the cyber team.

But they are also learning an employable skill, she said.

The school's team helps students learn computer science skills, but more needs to be done to teach students in K-12 about computer science, experts say.

The Maryland Cyber Challenge was designed by Dr. Rick Forno, director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Cybersecurity Center and director of the school's cyber security graduate program, and others. "This is a way to get students thinking about careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering) field," Forno said.

Like other county high schools, Catonsville High School offers an Information Technology program consisting of four computer science classes that serve as a prerequisite for college level computer science programs, said Kara Lynch, supervisor of the Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) business education career and technology education office.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for an information security analyst was $86,170 per year in 2012.

"They are recruiting all over the nation for these jobs," said Morris, a former network systems engineer who has taught at Catonsville High for eight years.

"Maryland really is the epicenter for cyber security because of our history serving Fort Meade and the NSA," said Jeffrey Wells, executive director of cyber development at the Maryland Department of Business & Economic Development (DBED).

Many small companies have developed around the National Security Agency (NSA) and other government agencies located in the Washington, D.C. metro area.

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There are between 13,000 and 20,000 cyber security-related jobs in Maryland, a number that fluctuates, and is expected to grow, Wells said.

"At the moment, the job creation is happening faster than we can find qualified candidates," Wells said.

BCPS currently offers a program in line with Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) curriculum. Students can take computer science as electives, but the classes are not required for high school graduation.

William Reinhard, a spokesman for MDSE, said the state plans to put more of an emphasis on computer science education.

Part of the issue, is a deficit in the number of qualified computer science teachers, Reinhard said.

A MDSE 2012-2014 staffing report shows identified computer science as a "critical shortage" area for teachers, as was technology education, special education, family and consumer sciences, math, Spanish, Chinese, chemistry, earth/space science, physical science and physics.

Marie desJardins, a professor of computer science at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Morris are part of a group of teachers and professors working to rewrite Advanced Placement (AP) computer science curriculum for the state, funded by a grant through the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Colleges are looking for students with problem solving skills and students aren't taught those skills in high school, desJardins said.

"When we get them, they don't have problem solving skills, and problem solving is computer science," desJardins said. "Students come in less prepared than we would like them to be — it's both the schools and the students not taking the right steps."

Students at the high school are beginning to recognize the opportunities available for them in the field. "I'm glad that we've gotten this off the ground, because before we had computer classes here, but we didn't have much more," said Eric Vogt, 17, a co-founder of the club at Catonsville. "This is a big thing right now — the cyber security field is a big sector, so now we're able to get students ready for that."

Although many students may think exceptional math skills are needed for computer science, that's not the case, Vogt said.

"I'm not an amazing person in math at all. I'm more of a problem solver," Vogt said. "Cyber security is a lot of trying to solve problems in new ways and if you're creative or you think outside-of-the-box, it's really helpful."

After school activities like Catonsville High's cyber security club can help students learn problem solving skills, desJardins said.

"But they tend to attract the students who are already interested and they reinforce gender stereotypes," she said.

Ninety percent of students who take computer science classes are boys, and fewer girls take AP computer science than any other AP course, desJardins said.

Members of the Catonsville High team acknowledge the stereotype and are trying to get more girls to join. They have an all-girls team this year.

Amanda Voll, 16, is captain of the team — she joined this year.

"Everyone was supportive of me coming out and doing this," Voll said. "Not to say it isn't a normal female thing to do, but if you look at the percentages of males in computer science, it's a lot more than females."

But schools need to do more, desJardins said.

"I think it would be great if every high school student took a computing class — it would level the playing field," desJardins said. "Right now, it is very self-seeking — it perpetuates the stereotype."

"Every field is being integrated with technology and it's becoming increasingly important to learn about computing technology," she said.

"It's not about teaching these kids to become cyber security specialists. It's about helping them to be able to apply technology to any profession they choose and to become citizens of the 21st century.

"We're behind the world on this issue," she said.

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