Expanding the talent pipeline with community engagement and corporate partners 

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In an initiative funded by the Northern Virginia Node of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI), George Mason University partnered with the Children's Science Center and local cybersecurity firms to help expand the pipeline of cybersecurity professionals. 

One barrier to integrating young people into a professional environment is their experience with workplace communications, conduct in a professional environment, and work in teams. “We regularly hear from our corporate partners that soft skills are a vital piece of workforce education that should be essential in the academic, professional training programs, and classes currently available,” says Liza Wilson Durant, director of the CCI NoVa Node, professor and associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at the College of Engineering and Computing. 

The Children’s Science Center had been running an intern program for high school and college students for the past four years that teaches many of these skills, so a partnership between the CCI and the Center seemed ideal. The Children’s Science Center program was designed for high school and college students with STEM backgrounds but with limited or no previous work experience. Their program uses both classroom training and hands-on experience as the students learn important workplace skills. The program began with a professional development orientation program lasting two weeks and was offered as the start of a 5-week high school cybersecurity internship.  

“Combining the intellectual capital available at George Mason University and the Northern Virginia Science Center Foundation creates a powerhouse opportunity for the Northern Virginia community. Together, we are exploring new ways to prepare all youth for the future STEM opportunities that await them,” says Mike Tillman, director of experience, Northern Virginia Science Center Foundation.  

Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, professor at George Mason University’s College of Science and affiliate faculty in the College of Engineering and Computing, presented two workshops during the orientation. The workshops focused on multidisciplinary problem-solving, among other things, and addressed what competencies would make the students successful as interns.  

 “We used very simple tools - the KWL assessment, which addresses what do you know, what do you want to know, what do you want to learn,” says Seshaiyer. One of the key messages he stressed was that failure is part of the process and how to turn failure into success.  

“The students were all really excited to be in the internship, they already had the passion to make a difference. They want to know how to make that impact. Some wanted to go impress people with content knowledge,” says Seshaiyer. “I was there to help them understand what to look for, how to work in teams, they will be part of something bigger, how to fit into a bigger group.”  

After the two-week training, the students moved into placements with local companies, CCI partners, and other cybersecurity firms. Twenty students received an offer of a summer internship, attended the two-week professional development orientation, and received a stipend from CCI of $2,000. 

Shirley Benedict, a recent graduate of Chantilly High School who interned at ManTech International, found the sessions useful and immediately applicable. “I've absolutely been able to incorporate a lot of the problem-solving strategies in my internship,” she says. “Part of my work as an intern involves scripting and running queries against incredibly large datasets that contain trillions of pieces of data. When I run a query and find that I'm not getting the response I expected, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact location of the error due to the sheer magnitude of the data. In situations like this, I've used Fermi Analysis strategies to make educated estimates, as well as the Five Why's technique to retrace the steps my code has taken and find the location of the bug.” 

CCI partners stepped up to take on  high school interns to mentor, train, and support the goal to widen the talent pipeline. “Widelity is aligned with the CCI’s vision, which recognizes that in order to address today’s workforce gap of cybersecurity talent, an effort must be made to develop the pipeline of STEM talent in our secondary schools.  We are excited to host four students this summer, with a focus on developing their professional skills and enhancing their cyber-related industry knowledge,” says Paul Altoz, CEO of Widelity. 

Tiffany Yan, ManTech’s college recruiting, student Internship programs, and diversity outreach manager, found great alignment between her role and the internship program. “I was already doing some of this work for the company, and the internship with the Children’s Science Center and CCI seemed like a great fit,” she says. “The company hopes that the internships become a pipeline to top talent and to convert them to full-time staff,” she continues, “and transition them into ManTech employees.” 

Yan found the interns to be smart, creative, and enthusiastic. “The program was so successful we hope to expand it next year,” she says. Based on this year's success, the CCI NoVa Node will host the program next year, hoping to expand and double its size. 

About the Children’s Science Center: 

Northern Virginia Science Center Foundation and the Children’s Science Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that operates the Children's Science Center LAB at Fair Oaks Mall and STEM programs traveling to schools and other community venues across the region. The foundation is also developing the Northern Virginia Science Center in Dulles, Va., a world-class, interactive regional science center for families, students, and learners of all ages made possible through a pivotal public-private partnership. Learn more about the mission today at childsci.org and the vision for the future at novasci.org. 

About the CCI NoVa Node: 

The CCI Northern Virginia Node (NoVa Node) comprises the region’s universities, colleges, and private, nonprofit, and government organizations, all sharing a commitment to building capacity in cybersecurity. The NoVa Node is grateful to the following companies who hosted one or more interns: Chainbridge Solutions, Mantech International, Widelity, Inc., Oceus Networks, Inc., NT Concepts, Inc., and SYSUSA, Inc.