Washington colleges and universities are ramping up their offerings in cybersecurity, a field that’s in such high demand that many jobs go unfilled.
“Right now there are two jobs for every one person employed – the opportunities are really amazing,” said Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, executive director of the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity at the University of Washington Bothell.
In Washington, three community colleges – Whatcom, Highline and Columbia Basin in Pasco – along with the University of Washington, and the nonprofit City University of Seattle, are federally recognized centers for cyberdefense education. The recognition comes from the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. As well, Central Washington University offers both undergraduate and graduate degree specializations in cybersecurity management.
The NSA selected Whatcom Community College to lead efforts to improve and expand cybersecurity education nationwide as one of four Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyberdefense National Resource Centers.
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WCC will be a "super hub," helping to support and guide 10 regional centers, and lead the mentor program to guide university and college administrators through the application process for the CAE-CD designation.
The school will receive up to $1 million in federal grant funding, which "will significantly expand the number of participating institutions in the United States," according to a news release.
The grant will leverage the mentor model program that WCC developed under previous grants and will connect candidate institutions with a qualified mentor, who will assist the applicant in improving their cybersecurity program and completing the CAE-CD application.
As one of four national centers funded to support various aspects of the initiative, WCC was designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/CyberDefense 2-year education in 2011, and again, in 2014.
Whatcom was among the first community colleges in the nation to earn the designation.
This summer, Western Washington University is building a “cyber range,” a computer lab that runs on a private computer network – reachable through the internet, but isolated from it.
On a cyber range, students can let a virus loose to see what harm it does, or run an attack against the system to find vulnerabilities, said Erik Fretheim, director of the university’s Computer and Information Systems Security Program.
Western started a cybersecurity program three years ago and collaborates with Whatcom Community College to teach the program; students complete the first two years at the community college, and then transfer to the four-year school. The partnership allows the two schools to share costs.
Still, “we’re far from being able to supply all the needs,” said Fretheim, who did a search for cybersecurity job openings in the state last fall and found 1,800 openings.
UW Bothell offers a bachelor’s and master’s degree in cybersecurity, as well as a six-month certificate program in cybersecurity that can be earned along with a bachelor’s degree. The program draws people from all walks of life, Endicott-Popovsky said, particularly military veterans.
Earlier this year, 10 UW students interned with T-Mobile as part of a cybersecurity certificate class. Nine of the students ended up with job offers.
“If you know cybersecurity, you'll always have a job,” said Midori Williams, one of the students who took a job at the Bellevue company.
There’s another way to teach cybersecurity, or augment what is learned in the classroom: Through competitions, in which teams of students learn how to fend off a cyber attack – or how to conduct one.
UW Seattle students this year won a regional cyberdefense competition, and the UW was one of 10 universities to compete nationally in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. (The UW won the competition in 2011; this year, the winner was the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.)
Melody Kadenko, a program director in the UW’s computer-science and engineering school in Seattle, mentors the UW cyberdefense team. It’s not just computer-science majors; this year, the team included students majoring in business and atmospheric sciences.
In addition to the national competition in April, there are numerous small competitions, known as “Capture the Flag,” which take place around the world. Kadenko’s students traveled as far away as the Netherlands, Japan, Russia and France this past academic year for Capture the Flag competitions.
This past year, in the Capture the Flag competitions, the UW’s team – named Batman’s Kitchen – was ranked among the top one percent of capture-the-flag teams in the world.
At UW Bothell, Endicott-Popovsky has been working to standardize the educational offerings around cybersecurity, so every professor and instructor who teaches in the field has a mutual understanding about what should be taught. She would like to see cyberdefense workers pass an exam and be licensed, like doctors and lawyers.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle are beginning to recognize the importance of cybersecurity, she said. The topic has been in the headlines after some members of the U.S. intelligence community said Russians interfered in the November 2016 election, and after a ransomware attack in May that spanned the globe and forced some hospitals in Great Britain to turn away patients.
Endicott-Popovsky praised an executive order signed by President Donald Trump earlier this year that outlines plans to improve data security for federal agencies, and to better protect critical U.S. infrastructure. The order will help knit together efforts among the public and private sectors, she said.
Federal legislation sponsored by Democrats and Republicans is aimed at addressing cybersecurity holes in the nation’s infrastructure, including the systems designed and maintained by energy companies.
“What you’re seeing is the country is really wrestling with cyber for the first time in my career,” she said.
The Bellingham Herald Senior Editor John Mangalonzo contributed to this report