Schools to launch cybersecurity program

Louisa County Public Schools will launch a cybersecurity program in fall 2021, with the help of a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The schools were awarded the funding last week when they were named one of five finalists in the department’s Rural Tech Project, out of 60 applicants from across the country.

A cybersecurity program has been in development at the schools for some time, according to Kenny Bouwens, who directs Career and Technology-STEAM and Innovation.

“It is one of the fastest growing careers, not only in Virginia, but in the country,” he said. “In this day and age, almost every company has a need for some type of network security.”

There is a growing need for companies and organizations to employ cybersecurity specialists to simulate attacks and then fix network vulnerabilities. Just this month, several U.S. government agencies and large corporations including Microsoft reported data breaches as a result of a cyber attack.

Bouwens said the schools will use the grant money on hardware and software needed to set up fake networks the students will be able to hack, attack and secure, and to develop the content and curriculum.

The program will consist of multiple levels, allowing students to gain a basic understanding of cybersecurity and then work up to advanced applications, including specialization in a specific industry such as agriculture, manufacturing or medicine. Students will also have the opportunity to be interns or apprentices with a company to get practical exposure to the cybersecurity field.

The program will be available to Louisa County High School students and will be virtual, at least at first. Bouwens said the reason for a virtual curriculum is because it can be difficult to gauge how many students will be interested in the program.

“One of the issues with rural schools is that in a larger [school district], they might create a specialty center for cybersecurity and pull from seven different high schools to get a class of 100 students,” Bouwens said. “Our high school is the size of one of their seven high schools, and that doesn’t give us a big pool of students.”

With a virtual program, the schools are able to still offer the program to students who are interested, even if their numbers don’t add up to a full class size. Virtual education, however, comes with its own set of challenges, especially in rural communities. Bouwens said students enrolled in the cybersecurity program will have the option of taking the virtual classes during school hours.

“We know that virtual is not right for every student,” Bouwens said. “Just because the course is virtual doesn’t mean that a student can’t take it at the high school. They would just do their content online in the classroom.”

The program is still in the early stages of planning. It is currently slated to launch in the 2021-22 academic year. After the first year, the schools will evaluate the program’s success level and refine it as needed. After the second year, they will resubmit their results to the Department of Education; the agency will choose which of the five Rural Tech finalists deserves another $100,000 grant.

“We’re really just hoping to create another opportunity for our students to be successful as they graduate and move on and make them hireable,” Bouwens said.

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