STEM Matters

Attracting K-12 students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics through competition.

GUEST COLUMN | by Bernie Skoch

CREDIT AFA CyberPatriot programThe United States is losing the global race in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies. Results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, released in December 2013 by the National Center for Education Studies, show that over the course of four years, U.S. teenagers slipped from 25th to 31st in mathematics and from 20th to 24th in science. We were mediocre four years ago; we are worse now.

But does this matter? Or is this just another “education challenge” to be discussed, vetted, and put on the “to-do list” of our busy educators? And the answer is, of course, yes! This matters a lot. And it is far more than an education issue.

And the answer is, of course, yes! This matters a lot. And it is far more than an education issue. 

Our science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education issue is a workforce development problem, and it threatens our very way of life. We simply can’t remain the world’s leading economy if we aren’t growing a fresh generation of STEM-qualified workers ready to feed an economy built around STEM capabilities and industries.

And more to the point, there is a growing need for professionals with specialized computing skills in the U.S. across all industries. The demand for cybersecurity professionals over past five years grew three times faster than the demand for information technology jobs. Furthermore, this demand grew 12 times faster than all other jobs in the country.

Cybersecurity jobs are rewarding jobs. They offer an average premium of about $12,000 over other computer-related professions.

The goal is to close the global gap and get students interested in STEM fields and technical careers early-on — before entering college. And one of the ways to get students excited is by introducing the element of competition.

We’re learning that while many lessons can be taught in a classroom, there is no substitute for practical experience. Project-based, hands-on exercises with real-world application allow students to take control of their educational experiences and direct their own pathways. Competition is a natural partner that excites students and allows them to apply their lessons collaboratively.

By incorporating competitive challenges into education we can increase motivation and develop a stronger investment from students.

An example of this theory in practice is CyberPatriot, a national youth cyber education program that focuses on cyber safety, cyber ethics, and cybersecurity. At the program’s center is its annual competition in which youth across the country engage in cyber defense challenges. The team competition encourages collaboration and primes students for education and careers in cybersecurity. CyberPatriot, created by the Air Force Association, has attracted public and private industry supporters to create partnerships that are setting the standard for the advancement of STEM studies in K-12 education.

The competition is structured so that team members work together to secure “virtual network images” that contain intentional cyber vulnerabilities. Teams work to fix the vulnerabilities within a specified time period.

CyberPatriot launched six years ago with eight Florida teams of high school students.  Today more than 1,600 teams compete from all 50 states and Canada.

The CyberPatriot VI champion team in the Open Division (crowned last month) was from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in California. LAUSD is among the largest school districts in America, and it struggles with graduation rates. The district got involved with the CyberPatriot program to help students become more familiar with basic technology, and to get youth  from modest means better acquainted with cyber systems.

Since it started competing, LAUSD has increased its graduation rate of after-school students to over 90 percent , which is statistically higher than the general student body’s graduation rate. And even though the majority of students attending the district live below the poverty line, LAUSD has advanced more teams to the finals of CyberPatriot than any other district in the country.

In San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julián Castro is committed to creating high-tech industry jobs and preparing the city’s youth to enter a globally competitive workforce. Since San Antonio is a Texas hub for technology corporations, city leaders have turned to programs like CyberPatriot to interest students in cyber jobs and drive economic development.

In 2011, San Antonio joined the CyberPatriot program with 21 teams. By 2012, that number had risen to 36 and by 2013, 55 teams had registered for the competition. This past year San Antonio fielded 85 teams, which included 12 groups from middle schools in the city. Capitalizing on its success with the CyberPatriot program, San Antonio launched the CyberStar cyber tutorial program to engage the entire community in investing in technical fields of study.

America is experiencing a workforce crisis in addition to an education deficiency. The more our nation relies on computer technology, the more vulnerable we all become. We need K-12 students to protect our future, as well as their own, and introducing competition is a significant way to get them interested in STEM.

Responding to this challenge begins in the classroom, but must be moved outside into our cities and local communities. Building enthusiasm and increasing motivation can help students learn the skills that will advance our economy. And allowing them to test their knowledge and skills against each other is the answer to getting them engaged.

Brigadier General Bernie Skoch (USAF, Ret.) is the Commissioner of CyberPatriot, the Air Force Association’s national youth cyber defense program. As Commissioner, Skoch oversees the planning and implementation of CyberPatriot as well as provides leadership and support for the program’s development.

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