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Mission Critical: Engaging Schools and Students for Tomorrow's Workforce

By Betsy Stein, NSA/CSS Communications Officer

Students work on an air-keyboard project at a Bitcamp hackathon at the University of Maryland, College Park.Students work on an air-keyboard project at a Bitcamp hackathon at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Several classes of fifth graders at Running Brook Elementary School spent a recent Friday afternoon deciphering secret messages.

Their mission, given to them by two National Security Agency (NSA) representatives, was to decrypt the messages and find out the contents of a secret briefcase. The students worked in groups and, with a bit of help, were able to crack the code and open the briefcase.

Few of the students had heard of NSA before and their questions ran the gamut from "Is this hacking?" to "Is cybersecurity like cyber bullying?"

A middle-schooler uses his math skills to break a code and stop a A middle-schooler uses his math skills to break a code and stop a "terrorist attack" at a STEM festival at NSA's National Cryptologic Museum.
One fifth grader, Cameron R., commented after the class, "I've never heard of this before. I think it would be a fun future job."

That's the whole point of the exercise - raising interest in fields like cryptology and cybersecurity. Engaging with schools and universities is critical to the mission and the future of NSA. The goal is to cultivate academic relationships, influence curriculum, and broaden the pool of skilled professionals who can develop innovative solutions to difficult cybersecurity problems. From kindergarten through graduate school, NSA is engaged with over 600 different institutions via more than 30 programs and activities.

"We must prepare the next generation of national security professionals," said Charlotte D. Knepper, head of Industry & Academic Engagement at NSA. "We work with academia to prepare students at a very young age, ensuring they have an academic foundation, as well as the interest and desire to pursue advanced studies in the STEM fields."

Early Introduction

At the elementary/middle school level, NSA introduces students to mission critical skills of science, technology, engineering, math, intelligence analysis, language and cybersecurity. NSA employees speak in classrooms, tutor students, judge STEM and science fairs, and more. Camps are sponsored nationwide for both students and educators such as STARTALK, which focuses on mission critical languages, and GenCyber, which aims to improve cybersecurity education.

James Devno, a former high school teacher in San Antonio, Texas, and now an NSA employee, attended a GenCyber camp as an educator and took the information back to his classroom.

"We did a week of coding, and I explained how computing worked," he said. "It gave the students a good idea of what they could be doing in the near future."

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New way to learn about linking with NSA

Interested in learning more about how NSA partners with schools and universities? It just got easier. Check out the new NSA Partners with Schools page on NSA.gov.

On the NSA.gov homepage, click on "Resources for …" at the top and then "Students and Educators" in the drop down menu. This will take you to a new and easy to navigate page on NSA's academic partnerships and how students, educators, and schools can participate.

Here students can find information about everything from how to apply for a job at NSA to how to participate in STARTALK language camps. Educators can find out how to get a speaker for their classroom, how to enroll in a GenCyber camp, or explore research opportunities. Institutions can learn about the Centers for Academic Excellence and how they can become one.

And, keep your eye out for NSA's new Featured School Series. NSA will be highlighting partnerships with various universities across the country beginning with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County this September.

Reaching higher education

Devno also took advantage of another, higher level, program offered by NSA - he attended a Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) in Cyber Operations at University of Texas, San Antonio, to obtain his master's degree in Information Technology.

NSA sponsors two types of CAEs at universities and colleges across the country: Cyber Operations as well as Cyber Defense. The programs promote higher education and research in cyber defense and broaden the pool of skilled professionals capable of supporting a cyber-secure nation.

"Everything I was interested in fed into this," Devno said of the program. "It was my ultimate goal. It was the Jedi Academy of cybersecurity, and I'm now being trained to be a true Jedi."

At the high school and college level, NSA employees in Research sponsor activities like hackathons and cybersecurity white paper competitions to draw in students and educators.

Ryan Burchfield, who works in network research at NSA, enjoys volunteering at hackathons, which are like invention competitions that go on for 24 to 36 hours. Despite the lack of sleep, he said they are energizing.

"Each time, I learn a few new skills and emerging technologies from my quests to help attendees," he said. "Additionally, our cadre of technical mentors has the opportunity to develop a rapport with attendees and change their perspective of NSA from stereotypical 'men in black suits' to technology enthusiasts, just like them."

Critical research

NSA also partners with academic institutions for research purposes -- to develop innovations needed in the years ahead. One example of these partnerships, which began in 2012 and recently expanded in spring of 2018, is NSA's Science of Security and Privacy Initiative. Six "Lablets," multidisciplinary labs, were established at leading research institutions to develop the cybersecurity and privacy breakthroughs needed to safeguard cyberspace.

"Science of Security and Privacy (SoS) is more than an NSA effort. It's a public activity for the agency with unclassified and open research," said NSA researcher Adam Tagert. "The Lablets are publishing their breakthroughs for all to learn from… Cybersecurity is a global challenge and our SoS effort is a global response."

Meanwhile back at Running Brook Elementary on a break between classes, NSA's Jeanette Haupt recalls one little boy who told her at the beginning of one of her talks that he hated math. After learning to decrypt codes, however, he totally changed his mind.

"When you see a kid who hated math suddenly want to be a cryptologist, that's pretty cool," she said.

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