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Sac State’s role in boosting cybersecurity training expands with new grant

Computer Science professors Xiaoyan “Sherry” Sun, left, and Jun Dai secured a grant of more than $500,000 to develop a cybersecurity training program that will allow Sac State to offer certificates to high school teachers. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

A new grant will support Sacramento State’s development of a program to train high school educators to teach the increasingly important discipline of cybersecurity.

The $518,940 grant awarded by the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity (NCAE-C), a program of the National Security Agency (NSA), to Computer Science professors Jun Dai and Xiaoyan “Sherry” Sun will fund the change in Sac State’s status from being a support institution to a certificate-granting university within the National Cybersecurity Teaching Academy (NCTA).

In association with Teach Cyber, NCTA is a virtual 12-credit hour graduate program that focuses on teaching foundations of cybersecurity, network security, and other advanced topics.

“Even if some kids stay in a field not related to cybersecurity, the knowledge from cybersecurity will benefit them by protecting their online safety.” -- Professor Jun Dai

Statista, which logs cybersecurity issues, reports that threats such as viruses, malware, phishing scams, and ransomware attacks have become rampant in recent years, and cybercrime is among the leading causes of risk for businesses worldwide.

“There is a huge gap between the cybersecurity demands and the current throughput of workforce development,” Dai said. “A lot of positions (within) cybersecurity are not filled, and we need strong workforce development to fill in this gap. That’s the fundamental drive for a project like this.”

Mark Hendricks, interim vice president for Sac State’s Information Resources and Technology (IRT), said public universities are vulnerable to these types of attacks. The University’s IRT Cyber Security Office protects campus systems from millions of attacks each day, he said.

“Cybersecurity is a booming field,” Hendricks said.

According to Cybersecurity Ventures, there are an estimated 3.5 million unfilled jobs globally.

“Not only are there many available cybersecurity jobs, but almost every technology job has a cybersecurity component, so the earlier that we raise awareness with students, the better,” Hendricks said.

The NCTA program, which aims to equip high school teachers to educate young people and inspire them to enter the cybersecurity field, consists of nine universities and community colleges divided into three regions. Each region has one lead and two support institutions. The grant will allow Sac State, which has been a support institution for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, to become a fourth lead institution.

Though separated by region, NCTA institutions work as a consortium to build curriculum and courses, recruit teachers to participate in the program, and provide training resources.

“Everybody is partnering together as a coalition,” said Dai, who learned of the award in early July. “The new coming project is to elevate us to one of the leading institutions, and the other participating universities will support us, depending on the needs.”

NCTA began training 90 teachers this summer. Sac State’s program will offer training to 35 more.

Melissa Dark, founder of the nonprofit DARK Enterprises, Inc., which supports cybersecurity education initiatives, says the consortium of universities and colleges has a goal of credentialing more than 500 high school cybersecurity teachers by 2025. 

“Sac State has been a leader in teacher cybersecurity professional development,” Dark said. “As the consortium looked to expand, it was looking for a leading university on the West Coast, and Sac State rose to the top.”

Sun said it is gratifying to see Sac State’s rise, considering its rich experience in training teachers on cybersecurity, including its summertime hosting of the prestigious GenCyber camp program for secondary school teachers. The 35 teachers entering Sac State’s NCTA certificate program will need to have attended a GenCyber camp or show knowledge of its concepts.

Dai said instruction should begin next summer.

In April, Congresswoman Doris Matsui visited Sac State to discuss the $575,000 she secured for new Power Engineering lab equipment as well as $250,000 to create a Cybersecurity Education Security Operations Center (eSOC) classroom focused on cyber-intelligence and analysis training that will help high school students enter the field.

“Not only are (Dai and Sun) doing work at Sacramento State in research, but they’re doing great work serving the greater regional community to help train high school teachers and to attract more high school students to college and into this field,” said Kevan Shafizadeh, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS).

Mariappan “Jawa” Jawaharlal, ECS associate dean of Faculty Affairs, called the grant “a huge deal.” He lauded Dai and Sun and noted their teaching and research impact, as well as their work securing grants.

“I value their scholarship and teaching very highly,” he said. “The College of Engineering and Computer Science is very proud of these two people.”

Dai, who is also the director of Sac State’s Center for Information Assurance and Security, said teaching online safety to young people is vital even if they choose not to enter the field.

 “Even if some kids stay in a field not related to cybersecurity, the knowledge from cybersecurity will benefit them by protecting their online safety,” he said.

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About Daniel Wilson

Daniel Wilson joined the Sac State communications team in 2022 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at the Sacramento Bee as an audience engagement producer and reporter. He graduated from Sac State with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism in 2018. He plays video games, watches pro wrestling, and loves spending time with his wife and cat.

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