Attaining support to develop a cybersecurity workforce

The MentorLinks team from Big Sandy Community and Technical College created a business and industry leadership team to help identify the knowledge, skills and abilities that eastern Kentucky employers want in their cybersecurity technicians. (Photo: Big Sandy)

Since October 2019, when the three-person team from Big Sandy Community and Technical College (Kentucky) mapped out a plan with their MentorLinks Mentor Davina Pruitt-Mentle to launch an associate of applied science degree with a network defense track, they have worked through an ambitious checklist of tasks.

The result: a new degree and three National Science Foundation grants totaling $600,000 for new cybersecurity programs at the rural Kentucky college.

These grants are in addition to the $20,000 the college received from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) when it was selected for the 2019-2021MentorLinks cohort. MentorLinks helps colleges develop or strengthen technical education programs in STEM fields through mentoring, professional development and technical assistance. MentorLinks receives support from NSF’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program.

Applications for the 2023-2025 MentorLinks cohort will be available on AACC’s website in April.   

Editor’s note: This article begins a series exploring how various community colleges have leveraged the National Science Foundation-funded MentorLinks program, which AACC manages, to strengthen their programming in STEM-related fields.

The Big Sandy team’s preparation of grant proposals also received guidance from other ATE projects, which they were introduced to through MentorLinks.

“Everything we’ve gone after, we’ve achieved, and I think that was due to having excellent mentors,” said Kathryn Miller, professor and coordinator of the computer and information technology program at Big Sandy. Miller leads the college’s MentorLinks team and is principal investigator of its ATE project – Appalachian Solutions in Cybersecurity Innovation Initiative – and one of the college’s two GenCyber grants.

Listen and assess

For nearly three years the Big Sandy team had monthly virtual meetings with Pruitt-Mentle, who is the lead for academic engagement with National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). Mentor-Links is typically a two-year program, however due to the Covid pandemic, the 2019-2021 MentorLinks colleges received no-cost extensions until fall 2022.

“Davina is a real go-getter. She is so awesome,” Miller said. At their face-to-face MentorLinks meeting in October 2019, Pruitt-Mentle listened to the team’s aspiration for a degree program.

Pruitt-Mentle then looked at the college’s information technology program and what the faculty was already teaching. From other mentoring experiences, she explained during an interview that she has determined it is best to build from the existing course catalog. The questions then become: “How can you take those courses and tweak them just a little bit so you can are still addressing KSAs (knowledge, skills and abilities) that are needed for cybersecurity without having to introduce whole new courses? And if there are new courses, how can you get faculty trained so they are able to teach those new courses?”

The cybersecurity curriculum developed by Miller, Myra Elliott, dean of special initiatives at Big Sandy, and Connie Estep, the college’s director of grants, received Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges approval in 2021. The first cohort of nine students began in fall 2021.

Additional advice

Aside from offering advice about the new degree program, Pruitt-Mentle has helped the team navigate the ATE program. For the 2019 ATE Principal Investigators’ Conference, which the team attended in person right after their first MentorLinks meeting, each of the team members attended separate presentations and showcases. Afterward, the trio met with Pruitt-Mentle to discuss what they had learned. 

“It’s not just the ATE conference. I mean, having that mentorship with Davina just helped us put things into perspective and figure out new directions of where we wanted to go,” Miller said, describing herself and her colleagues as “sponges” soaking up information.

Kathryn Miller, professor and coordinator of the cybersecurity program at Big Sandy Community and Technical College, instructs students Samuel Carrol (left) and Dwight Looney.

Pruitt-Mentle explained that hearing the team members’ takeaways helped her figure out what was important to them, who else she should connect them to, and what links and papers she needed to share with them. Pruitt-Mentle did a site visit at Big Sandy and arranged for the team to visit Moraine Valley Community College (Illinois), where the National Support Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance, an ATE cybersecurity resource center, is located.

She also encouraged the team to participate in the BILT Academy, a professional development project led by Ann Beheler, executive director of the National Convergence Technology Center at Collin College (Texas). Beheler also leads the Pathways to Innovation project that helps community colleges create Business and Industry Leadership Teams (BILTs). Both the center and project are ATE initiatives. Beheler was a MentorLinks mentor for several years, including 2019 to 2021.

The employers on the BILT that the Big Sandy team assembled have become partners on the Appalachian Solutions in Cybersecurity Innovation Initiative, the college’s project that has received a $300,000 ATE grant. While Big Sandy personnel were preparing this ATE grant proposal, they attended the multi-day workshop offered by Fortifying Cybersecurity for Computing Education through ATE grants and received coaching from Barbara Huffman de Belón, a co-principal investigator of that ATE-funded mentoring project.

Despite Covid and other challenges, the Big Sandy team also applied for and received two $150,000 grants from the Inspiring the Next Generation of Cyber Stars (GenCyber), which is part of the CyberCorps Scholarship for Service (SFS) program funded by NSF and several other federal agencies. With these grants, Big Sandy offered cybersecurity professional development for teachers in 2021 and in summer 2022 offered a camp for high school students.

“All of this came from MentorLinks,” Miller said, adding that all these efforts aim to develop a cybersecurity career pipeline that helps rural residents become entry-level cybersecurity technicians who can work for employers in the region or remotely.

Invaluable guidance

Pruitt-Mentle said the Big Sandy team accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time.

“They only have a handful of faculty. They’ve got to do a lot of recruiting. They’ve got to do a lot of marketing. I mean it was a heavy lift,” she said.

She then explained how MentorLinks’ mentoring helps community college faculty.

“If it is a heavy lift, it is easier if you have a lot of the connections and a lot of the networking opportunities where you can take advantage of free professional development or free additional grant writing or … [programs to] visit so you can structure your labs and what equipment you need and how you can take advantage of equipment and resources that are available for free,” Pruitt-Mentle said, adding: “There’s a lot of steps that I think MentorLinks was able to provide for them [Big Sandy] that they didn’t have to go through a couple of years of doing all that research. Instead, they could have someone who could say, ‘OK here’s what you need for this. Here’s what you need for that. Here’s a professional development opportunity activity you should take part in and by the way it’s for free if you sign up by next week.’”  

Miller continues to think about how to structure Big Sandy’s cybersecurity program to meet the economic development needs of rural eastern Kentucky. If she has her way, the cybersecurity collaboration with Bluegrass Technical and Community College, which is woven into the ATE-funded Appalachian Solutions in Cybersecurity Innovation Initiative, will lead to a bachelor of applied science degree.

She wants to make it possible for students to be hired for entry-level positions and work their way into cybersecurity jobs that pay six-figure annual salaries. 

About the Author

Madeline Patton
Madeline Patton is an education writer based in Ohio.