UMSL-hosted seminar challenges Jennings High School students to consider cybersecurity careers

Shaji Khan converge tour

Cybersecurity Institute Director Shaji Khan (at left) coaches three Jennings High School students through a capture the flag exercise Thursday at the Millennium Student Center. The competition was part of the Security Advisor Alliance’s Converge Tour, which brought 40 Jennings students to UMSL for a day focused on mentorship and cybersecurity education. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As soon as the game was over, Teresa Prater was already eager to play again.

The Jennings High School freshman urged that the lunch break that followed the computer-based challenge could wait. Eating a few slices of pizza and conversing with friends is a frequent occurrence she said, but practicing new skills with a selection of working professionals was an “intriguing and learning-filled” opportunity she wanted to capitalize on.

Seated at a front table during the University of Missouri­–St. Louis hosted cybersecurity seminar Thursday, Prater admitted that she had limited interest in learning these skills a few hours earlier. But now, after a morning spent engaging with local professionals, she was pleading to learn more.

“We came in here and started doing hands-on activities, and I want to do this now,” Prater said. “One of the speakers heard that I’m interested in psychology, and he started talking about double majoring in cybersecurity. I could use psychology to help solve problems in cybersecurity, which seems really interesting.”

This type of reaction was exactly what Jason Clark, founder of the Security Advisor Alliance, had in mind when his organization embarked on the nationwide Converge Tour a year ago. Aimed at addressing the severe industry talent shortage, the tour provides a platform for students to learn the basics of cybersecurity from experts in their communities. Thursday’s stop at UMSL paired 17 of those local leaders with 40 Jennings High School students.

“Our main mission is to solve the most complex problems facing the cybersecurity industry,” Clark said. “A top three problem is lack of talent. We don’t have the people, and we have a lack of diversity. Our mission is to inspire a million students to get into the field and tune into the message that this is an actual field that anybody can do.”

With 2 million cybersecurity jobs expected to go unfilled in 2019, the Security Advisor Alliance session was part of a greater UMSL initiative to attract a larger, more diverse population to the industry. In recent years, UMSL’s information systems and computer science departments have collaborated on cybersecurity conferences and career fairs, and the IS department has additionally hosted hackathons and summer camps.

“The whole idea is to get school students excited about cybersecurity with the ultimate goals of addressing the talent shortage and diversifying the workforce,” said Shaji Khan, director of the Cybersecurity Institute and assistant professor of information systems. “This of course directly ties to what UMSL is trying to do with its existing and upcoming cybersecurity programs.”

Thursday’s discussions on career pathways, the ethical use of technology and personal data security measures were delivered with a sense of urgency and passion that connected with students, particularly Prater.

“The lesson of today is there is more than meets the eye,” she said. “One problem isn’t only going to have one solution. The answer is not always going to be your first guess. You have to learn to go another way to find the solution.”

Tim Reilly, who teaches geometry and principles of engineering at Jennings, said he was impressed by the level of engagement from his students and hopes they will absorb the technical skills as well as some of the broader career lessons.

“One of the main takeaways is that students get to recognize what’s outside of their little world,” Reilly said. “This is an opportunity where we have people from all over the country coming to help, talk with them, let them know what opportunities exist and what it’s going to take for them to be successful.”



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