LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics: The STEM initiative's building blocks are prominent in Arkansas. As a cyber state, the 223rd Cyberspace Operations Squadron works hand-in-hand with the state’s school system to ensure students have every opportunity to about cybersecurity and ways to implement their knowledge now and as future cyber operators. On Feb. 21, 2023, the squadron participated in the EAST initiative in Little Rock, Ark. Since 2018, the 223 COS has been supporting this initiative with four subject-matter experts sharing their experience and knowledge with the children.
According to the EAST Initiative website, the program transforms schools and communities by empowering people with technology, encouraging critical thinking and creative problem-solving, and engaging them in positive, real-world experiences. EAST also provides powerful technology training to both students and educators, including professional development focusing on integrating technology into any classroom, regardless of the subject.
The East Initiative is all about project-based learning and community service. Students use cutting-edge technology to solve problems they identify in their communities. This mindset is a valuable tool in Arkansas, also known as a “Cyber State.” The tools that Van Dorple and the other 223 COS volunteers share with the students prepare them to support their home state and expose them to the option of following their passion with military service, benefits, and opportunities within the Arkansas Air National Guard.
“Due to EAST’s interest in STEM, we initially collaborated in 2018 and saw the opportunities to build training classes for kids,” said Capt. Thomas Van Dorple, the 223 COS Assistant Director of Operations. “The cyber industry is growing and the opportunity to spark interest at a young age is good for the kids and the state of Arkansas. We also want to ensure they know about the opportunities the Air Guard has.”
Cybersecurity is a booming industry that continues to grow. There are currently more than 3.5 million cybersecurity positions available in the United States with an average salary of more than $100,000. Many of the positions are remote opportunities that could benefit the Arkansas economy. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics projects this career path will become the 10th fastest-growing occupation over the next decade, with a 31 percent compared to the four percent average growth rate for all other occupations. This means that students have the potential to apply the knowledge they’ve learned in the EAST program and other programs to a career in this industry while staying close to home if they choose.
Van Dorple does more than simply instructing a class. Although a volunteer, he is responsible for building lesson plans and instructing hands-on labs for the students to teach them about cybersecurity. The lesson plan includes an overview of the industry and the wealth of opportunities that are available within the cyber community. After the instructional portion of the class, he teaches through hands-on labs that show the children how vulnerable networks can be to attacks. During this time, he gives the students a chance to “hack” a vulnerable WiFi network, teaching them the importance of unique password protection.
During this session, Van Dorple taught 20 students valuable information. The number of students varies, however, and he is ready to teach academics regardless of the class size. Academics cover information technology and cybersecurity basics. After the academic portion is finished, the students are instructed in the lab portion on a Kali Linux operating system using Aircrack-ng and Wireshark.
“The reason we have the hacking labs is to spark interest,” Van Dorple said. “We show them how to exploit the network first, then we show them how to defend against it. Our hope is that the interest teaches students good cyber hygiene and carries into the kids choosing to consider cybersecurity as a potential career path. The interest could motivate them o seek more opportunities to learn more and find a wealth of job security.”