Coding, Cybersecurity Classes Give Hawaii Teens Head Start on IT Career Path

Four students from Waipahu High School are on track to work part time at the National Security Agency’s Hawaii office while they are seniors.

by Susan Essoyan, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser / February 27, 2017

(TNS) — Data breaches frequently make front-page news — highlighting the growing demand for expertise in cybersecurity and the shortage of skilled professionals in the field.

At Waipahu High School some teens are getting a head start on the job market by taking coding classes for credit, including a pioneering course on cybersecurity that starts this fall. Already, four of them are on track to work part time at the National Security Agency’s Hawaii office while they are seniors.

“We want to give kids tools to survive and not get washed away by this technology wave,” said Ken Hiraki, president of the Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation, which chose cybersecurity as a priority career path last year and is funding the courses at Waipahu as a pilot project.

Instructors from DevLeague, a company that teaches computer programming, teamed up with Cindy Takara, who directs the school’s Information Technology Academy, to teach the first coding course at Waipahu. It turned out to be a hit, and courses in advanced coding and cybersecurity will be offered next year.

“The instructors and the content were interesting and very fun,” said Zak Sakata, a 16-year-old junior. “It’s like learning a new language. It’s going to be hard in the beginning. Once you have a foundation set, it’s pretty smooth sailing from there on.”

The upcoming cybersecurity course appears to be the first at a local high school. Like other schools, Waipahu has long offered Cisco Networking courses as well as A+ Certification, which focuses on computer building and repair. This year’s coding class covered HTML, CSS and JavaScript, languages used by web developers, and the students learned to build web applications.

“When people hear the term programming or coding, they automatically think, That’s not for me, you have to be smart,” Takara said. “That’s not true. You just have to be dedicated. You just have to have that desire, that willingness to learn.”

The Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation invested $11,200 to fund one DevLeague instructor this year at Waipahu and will pay for next year’s courses as well, according to Hiraki. DevLeague provided two teachers for this year’s coding class to make sure it went well and is developing next year’s cybersecurity course.

“This is just the start of our forays into the public schools,” DevLeague co-founder Russel Cheng said. “Our mission is to teach this to as many people as we can. The cybersecurity class in the fall session is very new, even for us.”

CyberSeek, which tracks the job market, found 128,000 openings for information security analysts posted in the past year, with 88,000 workers employed in those jobs. The median pay for that position is more than $90,000 per year, and the field is growing much faster than most jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Cybersecurity is definitely an up-and-coming job in high demand,” Sakata said. “With all this new technology coming out, we need people to be able to secure the network and all these devices.”

Private firms and government agencies alike are seeking cybersecurity expertise. Four Waipahu juniors have passed the academic and interview portions of the selection process for the work-study program at the NSA facility in Wahiawa and are going through security clearance. If approved, they will work as computer aides for at least 20 hours a week as seniors while attending school.

The National Security Agency monitors global intelligence and communications and tries to prevent adversaries from gaining access to U.S. information systems. NSA Hawaii keeps a low profile but hit the news in 2013 when a contractor, Edward Snowden, removed classified files and gave them to journalists, revealing mass surveillance programs that he thought violated privacy rights.

Three students at Leilehua High School are also in the pipeline for work-study positions at NSA this fall, and a senior is already on the job there, according to Carla Lum, Leilehua’s career counselor.

“She’s really enjoying herself, putting in at least 20 hours a week and getting paid very well,” Lum said.

Administrators at Waipahu hope to give younger students in its feeder schools a taste of coding as well, Vice Principal Elizabeth Higashi said. They are working with DevLeague on a teacher training effort this summer.

“We are trying to integrate it with our curriculum so our students have that experience and skill,” Higashi said. “We are looking to start at sixth grade.”

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