You can literally see rockets when you drive into Huntsville, Ala., also known as the "Rocket City." NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center is here, along with scores of aerospace and defense contractors. The city also has one of the largest fully digital school districts: 24,000 Huntsville City Schools students use laptops or tablets instead of textbooks.
All of this partly explains the new cybersecurity class at Grissom High School. Huntsville City Schools and U.S. Army Cyber Command are developing the curriculum, which will eventually begin in middle school.
From the case of NSA whistle-blower Eric Snowden to potential threats from Chinese hackers, talk of cybersecurity is everywhere — and many experts think the United States is simply not up to today's threats. One big reason why, they say, is too few U.S. workers with the right skills.
The Huntsville Schools-Army Cyber Command partnership aims to tackle that problem by getting more young people into the cybersecurity career pipeline.
A Growing Demand
Rodney Visser, a "threat provider" for the Defense Department, hacks military networks to expose vulnerabilities. But on a recent afternoon, he's here at Grissom, guest lecturing to a class of 20 students.
"We'll go in, and pretend to be the Chinese or the Russians or whoever, and either hack into computer systems, or break into buildings and gain access to critical information and networks and cool stuff like that," Visser tells the students.
James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says military branches and the private sector are all competing for high-tech expertise. He says government and private-sector demand for those cyber-experts is increasing as key systems become more Web-connected.
"Global financial systems are dependent. Electrical systems are dependent. You could turn off the water supply, maybe the traffic system," Lewis says. "The ability to disrupt is becoming, unfortunately, a lot easier to pull off."
At Grissom High, Visser points out that those threats also apply to dams, nuclear power plants, missiles and radar systems. Add in private-sector cybercrime, and you can see why security providers across the board are looking for talent.
Huntsville's new farm team may include students like Matthew Rogers, a junior at Grissom. "The infrastructure damage could happen in the hit of a button, so it's very important," Matthew says, " 'cause the governments are currently very good at offense, but none of them are very good at defense. It's probably something I'm looking to get into in my future career."
Christopher Lin, also a junior, loves cracking codes. He was interested in programming before, he says, but the course curriculum has him rethinking his career path.
"I also have a huge interest in security, just because I hear all the news about security, and all the stuff that's going on is really cool," he says. "And it's a growing field and it's something I would like to do as a career if I can."
But early preparation for these jobs raises at least two issues. Grissom cybersecurity teacher Christine Sutton says some students want to learn to hack their classmates' accounts — not skills she teaches in her class, she's quick to note.
Secondly, cybersecurity careers often require what other jobs don't — a security clearance. And that's something drug use or ill-advised social media posts could easily derail, she says.
"There are a lot of lifestyle choices that kids are making right now in high school that could stand in the way of them having some of the really exciting careers," Sutton explains.
Back in the classroom, Visser is optimistic. He says he's working to make sure future cyberdefenders meet the threat better than his generation is now. And he thinks economic and national security depends on it.
"Networks all over the place are getting attacked and pretty much constantly," he says. "They're always getting scanned and probed. So that's where some of you bright young minds might come into it."
Army and Huntsville leaders hope their curriculum will eventually spread across the country. At the end of the class, an enthusiastic junior admitts he skipped his advanced-placement history class to sit in on the session.
"I think you made the right choice," Visser says, half-joking.