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The NSA's School of Cyber

NSA School of Cyber class

The National Security Agency (NSA) is host to one of the most inclusive and formidable cybersecurity training programs in the world.  It's a program designed to not only train the future cybersecurity force, but to improve the skills of the teachers – and even civilian counterparts – as well.

Steven LaFountain is the dean of the College of Cyber at the NSA.  Now, you might be thinking of this cyber collegiate opportunity as a windowless room with uncomfortable chairs and bright white lights (Men in Black-style) but it's not quite so comically impractical.

"[The College of Cyber is] a new school we stood up within the National Cryptologic School," Dean LaFountain explains. "It's responsible for education and training of the cyber-related workforce for the NSA, and we also support training of Cyber Command personnel."

The College of Cyber is actually a two-fold part of the same branch of a program within the NSA called the Centers of Academic Excellence program.  According to Mr. LaFountain, the program is focused more on getting universities to include in their existing cyber training programs the types of fundamental computer science training and education that the NSA needs.

This means when they go to hire people for the jobs they need, they don't have to train them on basic computer science.  The NSA can just train them specifically on what they do.

"A lot of schools in the recent years have gotten away from our needs because the world has changed so much," Dean LaFountain says.

"A lot of computer science programs now focus on application-layer technology and mobile technology, and we're still looking deeper than that. We need that focus on the deeper levels of technology."

So who are the students, and where do they come from?  Are they members of the NSA already, or college hopefuls, or high school kids interested in mastering the Internet?  Actually, it's all three.

The schools looking to be a part of the Centers of Academic Excellence (CAE) program are varied.  Some of the military school houses have some cybersecurity training, a lot of the private institutions, state colleges and universities do cyber education.  If a private university, for example, becomes qualified for CAE status, they're given grants to help students integrate into the program.

The schools advertise when they have these grants, and students find out about them individually through their schools, or through presentations that the NSA does at various events around the country.  They also might find out through the National Science Foundation.

"The students at the schools that we designate are just students from around the country who are interested in computer science or engineering with a focus on cyber."

Internally, in the College of Cyber, the students are the employees.  It's like a mini university on the NSA "campus".  They have a course catalog with descriptions of all their courses, and students around the agency can sign up for courses as they offer them.

The goal is to increase the pipeline of students coming out of college with a good, basic understanding of cyber, Dean LaFountain explains. That way they don't have to spend 10-18 months bringing them up to speed before we can put them on mission.  If they're already prepared from the moment they walk in the door that means they can put their new employees on mission right away.

"The goal is to get about 20-25 schools designated as Schools of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations," Dean LaFountain says.  "We defined a set of academic content that we require and they map their curricula to it, and if their curricula meets all of our requirements they get designated as one of our CAEs."

This program helps the military as well.  A lot of the military missions are related to cyber security, and therefore have needs for the same skills.  A lot of the students who graduate with these programs under their belts could go to work for the DoD, or the NSA, or within the police force, or the intelligence community.

"The purpose of the program was to create students with better skills for the intelligence, military and law enforcement communities."

One of the strongest benefits to the students looking to attend this program is that it trains them for jobs which are actually in demand right now.

"There are lots of studies saying the estimates are that there are hundreds of thousands of cybersecurity-related jobs in the workforce that are vacant today,"Dean LaFountain points out.  "They're in demand, they're very employable, they'll easily find jobs.  One of my colleagues came up with an alternative definition for STEM.  Instead of science, technology, engineering and math, he says it should mean 'start to earn money'. It definitely gives them the skills that they will easily find a job."

The program isn't just for college students or NSA employees.  It goes beyond that.

This summer the NSA created a second program that they're excited about called GenCyber.  In partnership with the National Science Foundation, they gave grants to a small number of universities around the country to host summer camps for middle and high school students and/or teachers.  Some of the schools to participate where the University of Arizona, Mississippi State, University of New Orleans, Purdue, Towson, and Dakota State.

Some of the camps focused on teachers with the intention that the teachers would be armed with all the educational materials that they need to teach cyber fundamentals to their students.

Some of the camps were focused on specifically on students.  For example, the Towson camp focused solely on high school senior girls, and it was weight weeks and the focus was on the basics of secure programming so they can program more robustly, and lead to less vulnerabilities.  As a side benefit they also get college credit at Towson University for going through that camp.

One of the key requirements in this program is teaching ethical behaviors in cyberspace. The importance of online ethical conduct is tantamount to the training success, as well as teaching technical skills and expertise.

Some of the things that students will learn is how to analyze systems," Dean LaFountain explains.  "They'll learn how to find weaknesses, they'll learn how to actually exploit those weaknesses potentially, but they have to understand the legal limits of what they can do and the ethical situation that they're in in such that they need to behave as good citizens in cyberspace."

He adds that while the students might develop the skills that could allow them to do bad things, they have to know what the limits are.  It's okay to do things in the school lab, or in the lab  at NSA, but not to practice that at home.

"You don't practice that on the Internet in the wild because it's not safe," he says.

For those interested in being a part of the Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations, program, all the information you need is here at www.nsa.gov.  It lists all the information about the program requirements and the schools that are participating in the program.

Dean LaFountain emphasizes that this program is designed to encourage and train people interested in a career in cyber security.  With the right information, armed with the right resources, you never know where those skills might take you.

"Cyber is in our lives far more than most people might realize," Dean LaFountain says.  "Our cars are now all computer controlled.  More and more houses are being automated.  It's very important that we get these systems right.  For our own personal safety and privacy, and security, from a personal and a society and a national level."

Thanks to Steve LaFountain and the National Security Agency for their contributions to this story.

Jessica L. Tozer is the editor and blogger for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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