Summit highlights cybersecurity careers for rural students

Ema Haga stood in the coolly lit grand hall, processing the abundance of data presented to her over the past hour.

“We don’t really have a lot of unique programs like this,” said Haga, a student at Northwood High School in Saltville, Virginia.

She, along with six other students from Smyth County schools, joined scores of students and faculty at Radford University’s Classroom to Career Cybersecurity Summit 2023 on Thursday, Nov. 9, at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Virginia.

This daylong event, hosted by Radford’s Vinod Chachra IMPACT Lab, is part of the Professional Accelerated Cyber Education (PACE) program. The summit was designed to accomplish two main objectives. One was to strengthen the coordination among regional businesses and governments, K-12 schools and workforce development agencies to prepare rural students for the changing needs of the current workforce.


The second objective was “to see how we can improve outcomes for rural students like you so that we can actually build out the career pipelines that you need in order to be successful,” said Matt Dunleavy, Ph.D., executive director of Radford’s IMPACT Lab, in his opening remarks.

“That means you go by the vendor tables, introduce yourself and ask them, ‘Hey, what are you looking for in an IT security analyst? How can I prepare now in high school to get a job in your company?’”

Those vendors included several representatives from a number of businesses and education institutions that call Southwest Virginia home, including Radford University, Food City, Wize Solutions, First Bank and Trust and others.

High school students and their career and technical education (CTE) teachers from across the region visited the summit to explore its unique education and networking opportunities. In addition to Smyth County, summit-goers came from Botetourt County, Bristol City, Carroll County, Danville City, Galax City, Russell County, Smyth County, Washington County and Wise County public schools.

They heard from experts in the cybersecurity field, including retired U.S. Rear Admiral David Simpson; Jessica Gulick, commissioner of U.S. Cyber Games; David Raymond of Virginia Cyber Range; Kara Joyce, registered apprenticeship consultant with Virginia DoLI’s Registered Apprenticeship Division; James Blevins, director of the Rural IT apprenticeship program; Crystal Breeding, director of employer and workforce services at United Way of Southwest Virginia; Rob Graham, superintendent of Pulaski County Public Schools; and Alex Leonard, an IT specialist and instructor at Carroll County Public Schools.

Radford University Professor Prem Uppuluri, director of the university’s School of Computing and Information Science, was there, too, providing expertise through a series of panel discussions. Uppuluri also led groups of students – separated into red, blue and green teams – through simulated activities such as capture the flag exercises, which simulate real-world computer security challenges and are a common learning tool at Radford’s School of Computing and Information Science.

In addition to those exercises, students had a chance to explore Washington County Public Schools’ mobile STEM Lab, which was equipped with robotics, drones and virtual reality activities.

Hosting the Career Cybersecurity Summit 2023 was possible through a $1.2 million U.S. Department of Education – Rural Postsecondary and Economic Development grant. Through the funding, Radford is continuing efforts through the IMPACT Lab to develop and deliver cybersecurity micro-credentials, courses and certificates to students and teachers.

For the past six years, the IMPACT Lab has delivered online, self-paced, competency-based education (CBE) in high-demand workforce areas throughout Virginia and several neighboring states. The CBE approach focuses on teaching specific job-related skills needed to complete a critical task within the workplace. To date, the IMPACT Lab has secured approximately $16 million in external funding to support its work, including the largest grant in the history of the university.

“We want to rapidly empower learners to obtain career-gain skills. We also want to strengthen our current workforce,” Dunleavy noted while also explaining that all the programs are online and self-paced.

“That means you can integrate this into your existing curriculum,” he said to teachers in the room. And, to students, “you can actually work through these credentials as you’re doing your regular schoolwork.”

In addition to cybersecurity, IMPACT Lab programs include geospatial intelligencedata science and K-12 education.

 “I think it’s really interesting to learn about all the paths you can go in,” Haga said just before walking outside to pilot a drone at the mobile STEM lab. “This is a great opportunity for us, and it’s nice to find out Radford, somewhere near us, actually has programs like this.”

Those words were music to the ears of her teacher, John King, the senior technology specialist at Smyth County Public Schools, who also completed the IMPACT cybersecurity certificate.

“It solidified what I’ve been telling them and teaching them,” said King, who teaches cybersecurity fundamentals in Smyth County. “It brings it all together. It lets them know there are real-life opportunities for what they are learning in class.”

Nov 21, 2023
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761