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Hands-On Learning Experiences Encourage Cybersecurity Career Discovery

With a mention in the new National Cyber Workforce and Education Strategy and even a dedicated state law, K–12 cybersecurity education clearly has the eye of policymakers. However, despite public attention and new opportunities for high school students to pursue cybersecurity coursework, high schools often struggle to provide students with a clear understanding of what cybersecurity careers actually look like. Hands-on learning experiences, like those we’ve had at our schools and during our internship with NICE at NIST, can help bring cybersecurity education and career pathways into focus for young learners.

High school cybersecurity education, career awareness, and hands-on activities are in short supply

Cybersecurity can be a challenging topic for students. They may need to learn new programming languages, techniques to analyze large sets of data, and other new systems and technologies. Professional skills in communication, teamwork, and leadership, which are all essential in cybersecurity, also take time and practice to develop.

Schools face challenges in providing high-quality cybersecurity education, too. Although many organizations provide resources for cybersecurity educators, there is still a major shortage of cybersecurity teachers in classrooms. Additionally, funding constraints may prevent schools from providing necessary resources such as laptops, network equipment, and training software to allow students to participate fully and equitably.

As a result of these challenges facing students and schools, some students go through high school without opportunities to pursue cybersecurity education. Many may even enter college or the workforce with little awareness of the careers available in cybersecurity.

Extracurricular activities—including cybersecurity clubs, competitions, and camps—and work-based learning experiences, such as apprenticeships and internships, provide options for improving youth understanding of cybersecurity careers. Both models can also help students develop foundational skills while exploring the cybersecurity career ecosystem for themselves.

Our experiences building foundational skills and career awareness in cybersecurity

We’ve seen the skill-building and career exploration value of extracurricular activities and work-based learning in our own recent experiences.

This summer we both worked with NICE at NIST as interns in the Summer High School Internship Program (SHIP). For our research project, we explored how cybersecurity education, extracurricular programs, and training can be expanded to increase the number of workers in cybersecurity. Specifically, we studied how cybersecurity courses affect students’ interest in cybersecurity and how extracurriculars help students prepare for the workforce. This work-based learning experience helped us understand the variety of cybersecurity roles in the workforce (including non-technical ones), gave us exposure to a professional workplace, and allowed us to develop our own interests in cybersecurity.

At Asher’s school, Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, school leaders have taken the innovative step of providing hands-on learning opportunities in the school’s technology department. Sophomores and juniors in computer science classes are eligible to support the school’s systems operations team under the supervision of school staff. As a member of the team, Asher helps to maintain the school’s servers and protect the data hosted on them, and he redesigned the school website.

Experiences like our internships and clubs can complement other hands-on opportunities such as cybersecurity competitions like the U.S. Cyber Games, Cyber Patriot, National Cyber League, and PicoCTF. These capture-the-flag challenges, some of which are free to play, deliver hands-on learning by encouraging students to find ways to exploit or crack practice information systems. Put together, these experiences have helped us develop technical skills and have allowed us to picture ourselves in cybersecurity careers.

With foundational cybersecurity skills and better awareness of the pathways available in cybersecurity, young learners will be more likely to consider a career in cybersecurity, even if they don’t pursue it right out of high school. By building connections with local employers and leveraging their own IT staff and resources, educators and other school leaders can cultivate extracurriculars and work-based learning for students who are interested in learning about cybersecurity. This will increase the students’ interest and allow them to decide if they want to take their next step in cybersecurity education or careers.

Want to learn more about inspiring and promoting awareness and exploration of cybersecurity careers?

Join us for Cybersecurity Career Week, October 16-21, 2023. Learn more and access cybersecurity career resources at

We thank the NICE team for their support in developing and publishing this blog. In particular, we would like to acknowledge Femina Amoo, NICE’s 2023 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship student, for her review of the piece. 

Released September 11, 2023, Updated September 12, 2023