Date: Wed, Sep 29th, 2021

Great Falls College’s cybersecurity program joins consortium to help high school teachers

Great Falls College computer technology instructor Cheryl Simpson has been selcted to be a mentor to high school educators teaching cybersecurity.

GREAT FALLS, Mont. – Cheryl Simpson has a pretty simple hope.

When young people tick off their careers of choice – doctor, lawyer, firefighter, by way of example – for when they grow up, she wants them to include cybersecurity professional in the list.

And why not? asked Simpson, an instructor in the Great Falls College MSU computer technology program.

“You’re a detective, a good guy,” she said. “But you get to think like a bad guy, the whole ethical hacker thing. You have to be able to think like a criminal in order to get the criminal. It’s really fun.”

Of course, that simple hope is a lot more difficult in the real world. She mentions fighting the stigma of the nerd with no social skills clacking away alone on a computer in the basement to a host of other obstacles.

Enter the City University of Seattle, which received a $700,000 National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity (located with the National Security Agency) grant to fund the Cybersecurity Highschool Innovation, which is a collaborative multi-state initiative to develop high school cybersecurity teachers.

Together with a consortium of 12 National Centers for Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity from seven northwest states, CityU’s Center for Cybersecurity Innovation will build a sustainable network to educate, train and prepare high school teachers so they can offer complete cybersecurity courses in their school districts, with the goal of the grant to encourage more students to consider cybersecurity as a career.

Great Falls College and Missoula College in Montana are designated Centers of Academic Excellence, and Simpson will be one of the mentors to 70 high school teachers from the region recruited to learn cybersecurity content and principles online in 2021.

A private-public partnership is planned to support this initiative. The project will engage local, regional and national companies, government agencies and military-related organizations to support a self-sustaining network to increase the number of high school graduates entering the cybersecurity career pathway.

“Our goal is to build a replicable model for teachers so that they can offer cybersecurity classes to ensure that we have more students going into this high-demand, essential career pathway,” said Morgan Zantua, associate professor and director of CityU’s School of Technology and Computing.

“When they get to college or plan ahead for college and are figuring out what to study, we want them to hear cybersecurity, and think, ‘Yes!” Simpson explained.

Simpson said there are 500 unfilled high-wage cybersecurity jobs in Montana and more than 500,000 across the United States that in many cases could be filled by remote workers.

“I will be there for a support,” she said about her role in the grant. “I will help teach the teachers what they need to know and how to teach it. It’ll be really fun.”

The way it will work is the program will select an instructor or multiple instructors to teach the program, Simpson will get those folks up to speed, and students from across the state will be able to take the course.

Simpson, who lives east if Great Falls in central Montana, knows first-hand the challenges facing the state’s smallest communities, and it’s one more reason she is so excited about the Cybersecurity Highschool Innovation project.

“The instructor could be in Stevensville and students could be from Missoula or Geyser or Scobey or Great Falls or anywhere,” she said. 

Simpson’s own experience as an educator came as she home-schooled her children as they were growing up, and they started taking dual credit classes through Great Falls College.

Simpson, who has a computer science degree from the University of California San Diego, also continued working as a consultant building websites.

“When my children graduated, I called (Great Falls College) to see if there were any jobs, and I got on as an adjunct, and then last year (2020-2021), I got on full-time,” she said. 

While most of her professional background is on the programming side of computer technology, she just completed a master’s degree from Western Governor’s University in cybersecurity, but she already stays current by constantly engaging in conferences or watching video blogs or reading blogs.

 “I was just telling my husband, a person needs to spend at least an hour a week staying current in this industry,” she said. “My college education was terrific, but it’s 20 years old and completely outdated. You have to work to stay current.”

 Great Falls College and Missoula College are the only programs in Montana designated Centers of Academic Excellence by Homeland Security and the National Security Agency, and both schools hope to expand the numbers of students taking their programs.

 “We want people,” Simpson said. “This is a good, growing field. I love that stereotypical coder in the basement, but it takes people like that and people like me who don’t mind getting up in front of a lot of people and talking cybersecurity with a lot of enthusiasm and energy. It doesn’t matter what sex you are or what race you are. It’s really inclusive.”

 She said the need is only growing for cybersecurity professionals as more and more hackers are targeting people.

 “Hackers don’t see Great Falls College in the middle of nowhere, they see an IP address, and they will try to infiltrate it and see if there’s anything interesting there they can use,” she said. “Businesses are going bankrupt across the United States because of hackers. They must be stopped.”

 It is not too late for people to find their advantage and enroll in Great Falls College’s cybersecurity program this fall because of its 8-Week Advantage. The college and cybersecurity program offers 8-week courses and the next block begins Oct. 25.

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