Among the many ways technology and education intersected at this week’s SXSWedu conference — beyond demonstrations of robotics, virtual reality tools and the use of data analytics to improve learning — were myriad discussions exploring ways to teach technology and computer science skills more effectively.

Kevin Nolten lent a voice to those discussions as one of more than 1,300 presenters at SXSWedu, joining a panel on best practices in computer science education featuring Arkansas Department of Education’s Anthony Owen, Baltimore Public School’s Heather Lageman and moderated by’s Pat Yongpradit.

Nolten is outreach director at the Cyber Innovation Center and the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center based in Bossier City, Louisiana. EdScoop caught up with him after the panel to discuss how his organization is helping K-12 schools and higher education institutions weave cybersecurity awareness into class discussions — and longer-term, attract more students into computer science and cybersecurity fields.

EdScoop: What does your organization do to support America’s 15,000 school districts in the way of cybersecurity and cybersecurity education and training?

Kevin Nolten: The Cyber Innovation Center has been identified by the Department of Homeland Security as their national model for cyber education. What that means is it allows us to receive grant dollars from DHS to develop a robust library of STEM, cybersecurity and computer science curriculum and in turn, distribute that content and curriculum to every K12 teacher, K12 school district and every state department of education entity across the country.

We want to help engage students through project-driven learning, to get hands-on experience in operating a piece of technology, go through an engineering design process, or have a conversation about security versus privacy, or is hacking ethical. We want to get students thinking about the real-world relevance of learning science or technology … so that they can begin identifying what opportunities there are in the future.

What separates your center’s work from other groups promoting computer science?

The Cyber Innovation Center and the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center, NICERC, work with partners across the country to solve this mission. Those partners include nonprofit organizations like, school systems, state departments of education to further disseminate the concepts, pedagogy and the philosophies that are needed to begin integrating cybersecurity and computer science into everyday education.

Instead of teaching subtraction at the second-grade level, saying, “Johnny’s got three apples at the house. He’s got five friends coming over. How many apples does he need to go out and buy?” – use this story: “Johnny’s got a computer that’s got three gigabytes of memory. He got a great game for his birthday that requires five gigabytes of memory. How many gigabytes does he need to add?” What we’ve done there is fundamentally changed the context in which the student is engaged in the problem. [It also creates an opportunity] for kids to go home and say, “Mom and Dad, guess what I learned about at school today? Do you know what memory does for computer?” “No, Johnny. I didn’t know that. Tell me more.”

Where do you inject cybersecurity in all this?

Cybersecurity is unique. We take it from a topical perspective — from a high level at middle school, just introducing them to key fundamental components of the world of cyber. Then at the high school level, we take a deeper dive into the more technical components: the networking and security, the artificial intelligence, the data structures and threat assessment and protection components of cyber security.

For example, in our middle school curriculum, we have an electricity module that asks students to build a flashlight out of random household objects. But why? There’s been a cyberattack on the nation’s power grid. Let’s have a conversation about a cyberattack. What is a cyberattack? Why do we need SCADA systems [computer systems that control industrial equipment]? Why do we need protection on our nation’s infrastructures?

So you get to have that conversation in the class because you have to build a flashlight and we’re blending it with series circuits, parallel circuits, switches, resistors — concepts that we have to teach at the middle school level.

Another example is a music module where students build a harp out of a Frisbee and fishing line. The teachers ask them to play a sequence of notes. The sequence of notes unlocks a safe that contains encrypted documents. That leads to a conversation of how Louis and Clark, the Navajo Indians, and heads of state in WWI and WWII utilized encryption and decryption to transmit messages during their time.

What you’re doing to support higher education and cybersecurity education and training?

We want to make sure that we are building a pipeline of students that start at the kindergarten level and move up to the community college and four-year universities. We’re working with university partners and teachers in their community to introduce the programs that we offer at no cost. We also create articulation agreements for dual enrollment programs so that students who take cyber-science or cyber-literacy at the high school level will get entry-level, freshman-level credit so they can be a step ahead of their degree program.

What’s DHS’s role in supporting your organization?

The Department of Homeland Security and its CTAP division are focused on cybersecurity education across the country as a national security issue and a workforce development issue. They want to make sure that our country has a workforce, that it has the knowledge, skills and abilities to occupy positions that are open today but are exponentially growing.

Today there are over 1 million open cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. By 2020, the forecast is over 2 million [unfilled] jobs. That is a daunting number for organizations, requiring cybersecurity skills, digital forensics, computer science, you name it. That is a bucket of jobs that are available without a talented pool of individuals that are ready to take on those positions. DHS’s focus on that workforce development piece recognizes we’ve got to start in K-12.

DHS provides a grant to the Cyber Innovation Center to develop the library of curriculum and to offer professional development training to teachers and also to support state departments in their framework and standards development.

Speaking for myself, I think that our lack of focus on STEM education early on in the 1980s is a direct correlation to why we have the shortfall of jobs that we have today. We want to get ahead of the game. We want to make sure that we’re not only putting a band-aid on the problem, but solving the issue and getting to the root cause. By focusing on transforming that K-12 classroom into that 21st-century learning environment, we are directly solving the workforce issue that is going to be faced by our country in the years to come.

What are you hoping to accomplish in next year or two for your organization?

Right now our organization has teachers accessing our curriculum in all 50 states. We also have approval from nine state departments of education. What that means is they have endorsed our curriculum as a state-approved curriculum. Our hope in the next year is to expand that number and to make sure that our teachers have resources at their fingertips.

Through the grant, we are able to provide these resources to teachers at no cost. When I say free curriculum, that’s lesson plans, master notes, student workbook, teacher workbooks, all available through our learning management system. They’re downloadable PDFs all available to no cost.

To further that, we offer professional development training. We go to school districts in states across the country and lead and facilitate one, two, or three-day professional development workshops for middle or high school teachers at no cost all under the auspice of our federal grant.