Cyberattacks Increasing, But Defenders with CS Education Are Not Growing at Same Rate
Q & A with David Greer, senior vice president of Project Lead the Way.
Cyberattacks appear to be on the rise; however, young professionals equipped with computer science (CS) skills to combat those threats are not growing at the same pace as the need.
That’s the assessment from various recent sources and reports, from news sites to companies that track cybersecurity. One report released last month by the Education Commission of the States, titled “State of the States Landscape Report: State-Level Policies Supporting Equitable K–12 Computer Science Education,” stated, “There are simply not enough adequately trained people to fill the current need for information security analysts, hardware engineers, software developers, computer programmers, data scientists and other STEM professionals. States must both inspire and prepare a far greater number of students to pursue CS education and related careers.”
That’s where organizations like Project Lead the Way (PLTW) come in. The Indianapolis-based nonprofit develops STEM curricula, including CS classes, for American K–12 schools, teachers and students.
David Greer is the newly hired senior vice president and chief program officer for Project Lead the Way. He’s responsible for three major areas: content and curriculum development, professional development and training, and assessments and evaluations for students.
Before PLTW, he worked as executive director for the Institute for Information Security at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. So Greer knows a little something about cyberattacks and the defense mechanisms and skills needed to thwart those nefarious efforts.
THE Journal caught up with Greer to inquire about his responsibilities at PLTW, as well as his assessment of cyberattacks and how prepared the American workforce is to deal with them.
THE Journal: Why do you think computer science education so critical?
David Greer: There are a lot of statistics out there, but if you look at everything we do nowadays, everything we work with is interoperable and interconnected. We need computer science expertise in the workforce. If you look at computer and math related fields by 2022, we’re not even on track to produce a fraction of that workforce.
At every level, from K–12 through higher education, computer science really creates thinkers, a deep problem-solving mindset and perseverance, which leads to a successful citizen and employee. Computer science creates these transportable skills that can be transportable to college and their careers.
THE Journal: Can you comment on the growing need for cybersecurity?
Greer: Cybersecurity is a critical component to everybody’s life. Everything is interconnected now, from business to school to government. We need a cyber savvy workforce. Just as far as our needs as a country are concerned — electric, oil and gas pipelines are all part of a computerized grid. We need to have these on secure platforms. Right now, we really don’t have a workforce that can meet that demand.
We need to think about really educating a workforce and a future workforce, not just around our immediate security needs, but for our future security needs and address them early — down in the elementary, middle and high school levels, and do everything we can to protect our data and our country.
We need to think about how we’re setting up different industries — electric power systems, smart grids and smart devices. We need power to be more efficient and cost effective. Even for things like credit cards, retail and personal computers — we need to talk about computer science and the needs of what a computer scientist can bring.
THE Journal: Women make up only around 22 percent of CS students, while African American and Hispanic students make up just 13 percent. Why is diversity so important, and how can we encourage it?
Greer: Diversity is critically important. We need to be attuned to the changing demographics of this workforce, and really use this to our advantage. We need a K–12 computer science curriculum that inspires interest, is inclusive, and reflects an interconnected world. It is really an equity opportunity for students.
The pathway to computer science is, the earlier that a student has access to hands-on, engaging STEM opportunities, the better it is for that student. As early as second grade, students get an idea that they’re good at math or not so good. This is especially true for girls and underrepresented minority groups.
Early STEM education really helps combat that gender stereotype. There’s a pathway forward and beyond the notion of stereotypical disciplines that are perceived as harder. We want young people to experience success — they can be very successful at them.
THE Journal: What is unique about the way PLTW’s CS courses engage students?
Greer: There are four major ways we’re very unique. One is the way we deliver all of our courses. We’re one of the very few organizations that provide full K–12 CS offerings, from one grade level to the next.
Also a great differentiator on why we’re unique: Since we do offer multiple pathways to our curriculum, we’re really able to bring relevance to classrooms and students. We’re bringing in biomedical themes — it’s really unique to see what they’re learning. And they’re progressing through our computer science opportunities.
The third thing is teacher professional development. We train teachers from all over the country to help them become more successful. Finally, we take an activity and problem-based approach (APB approach). We provide a map to real-world solutions out there. It’s exciting to see how students can take what they’ve learned and apply it to their real surroundings.
THE Journal: How does the United States compare to other countries with regard to CS and STEM education? Do we rank at the top, are we midway through the pack, or are we on the bottom?
Greer: Unfortunately, we’re midway in the pack. Recently, there’s been a huge focus on STEM education in our country. We have to develop a workforce that can maintain our innovative culture. We’re lacking in our workforce now. We should have been addressing computer science and these issues 20 years ago. We have to be planning for the long term. We have to prepare young people for specialized jobs in computer science and engineering and the like.
THE Journal: How many students has Project Lead the Way affected?
Greer: We’ve had 11,000 programs in 9,000 schools. That’s approximately 2.4 million students.
THE Journal: How much does PLTW cost?
Greer: The model participation fee ranges from $750 to $3,000 per program, which includes all the courses and an unlimited number of seats. It provides access to all the courses and an unlimited number of students, and includes technical support and ongoing training opportunities for professional development.
It’s a great value, a great way for schools to get access to the top, high-quality content in science, engineering, computer science.
THE Journal: Are you able to quantify the rise in cyberattacks recently? And what are these attackers doing?
Greer: I’m not sure it’s really a significant rise. They’re just more visible with the media now. Cyberattacks can occur on multiple levels. You have your basic actor just trying to profit and get your money.
Recently, there’s been more media coverage of sophisticated attacks. You have nation-states that are involved in intelligence gathering, information and espionage.
We should be attuned to how everything we do is interconnected in this global economy, with interconnected worlds. There are a lot more vulnerable points of entry, a lot more vulnerabilities to exploit. I’ve been working in this space for 15-plus years. There are high volumes of attacks and compromises that happen every year. But they’re not stopping. It’s always a catch-up game from the person defending to the person attacking. That’s why the need for trained professionals in computer science and cyber security has never been more critical.