Just one “B”

One of the things I enjoy most about being an instructor is getting to know my students. Our program has a capacity of 20 students, and runs as a cohort. Because I teach several classes at a time (this semester I am teaching five), I get to spend quite a bit of time with the students.

I love getting to know my students as individuals. I love finding out where they came from, and what interested them in cybersecurity. I come to appreciate their unique experiences and points of view. I enjoy their creative abilities. I especially like giving them individualized feedback.

Near the conclusion of each school year, The University alumni organization puts on an awards ceremony for 11 outstanding students — one or two from each college at the University. This year I nominated a student to receive our Outstanding Student Achievement Award — and I was pleased that he was chosen to receive that honor.

This student — who happened to be from Pocatello (our university town) — did something unique and impressive: He asked one of his teachers from grade school, one from middle school, and one from high school to be present at the ceremony; then, during his acceptance remarks, he shared a short experience where each teacher had positively influenced his life.

I am sure it was a rewarding moment for those teachers to feel that they had influenced this student in some small way.

According to information shared openly about his academic performance, this student had a 3.98 (scale of 4.0) GPA: he had received one single B during his entire undergraduate studies.

Now, before the ceremony began, I was chatting with another instructor from my department. He said to me “I am very happy for this student. But when I realized that I had given him his only B, I felt like I might have ruined his perfect run.”

I responded in jest “Well, he will remember you one way or another!”

Then, I smiled immensely when in his acceptance speech, after honoring his grade school, middle school, and high school teachers, the student called my colleague’s name and said “he is a demanding teacher who expects his students to work hard, knowing it will serve them well as professionals, and I am thankful for the learning experience I had in his class.”

That was outstanding.

IT-OT Current Events Assignment

I ask students in our IT-OT Fundamentals course to create a short slide presentation about a current event in industrial automation — which they then share with the class.

The assignment increases their familiarity with industry trade publications and gives them a sampling of intriguing news.

Ethernet to the transmitter (SPE), and connected pumps were a couple of developments that caught my attention — because they represent a transformation of both input and output. Couple this with cloud services, and things can get very interesting.

A couple of weeks ago I made a trip to Utah State University in Logan, where we talked with the fine people running the innovative Center for Anticipatory Intelligence. At lunch, one faculty member asked me a very thoughtful question (especially for someone who isn’t a cybersecurity person): “Do you think the new systems being built today are more or less vulnerable than what we’ve created in the past?”

My response? “On the whole, I am afraid we are making the most vulnerable industrial processes we’ve ever had.”

That should give us a lot to think about – with important implications for how we educate and train the emerging workforce.

Bending Conduit?

Here is something you might not have expected: We have all our cybersecurity students take an energy systems hands-on lab where they spend a session learning to bend metal conduit. We actually have a nice little conduit bending station. Students get to try making several different bends. It is not necessarily an easy thing to do!

Cybersecurity students have some times wondered — especially in the heat of the moment — “Why am I learning to bend metal conduit? This is not what I ever intend to do as a professional!”

I tell them, “I don’t think you will ever bend conduit. But you will never look at a facility — and especially the conduit — the way same again. That’s what makes us different from ‘traditional’ cybersecurity programs.”

To me, a fundamental part of bridging the IT-OT gap is appreciating another perspective — learning to value the training, competencies and objectives of someone else; and, maybe even to revere differently competent technical professionals as artists in their own right!

The conduit bending exercise also gets the students thinking about the cables — not just power, but communications. Near the end of the program, in our Critical Infrastructure Defense class, we discuss attack vectors — who, when, and where could a structured threat actor strike? The point of the cables comes back up — and when re-enforced with examples of tapping tools — the security implications of every inch of cable suddenly make a lot more sense!

Interview night

A couple of years ago we had planned to carry out an Industrial Operations Combine for all students in ESTEC programs. We intended to pattern the Combine after the NFL combine, where regional industrial employers could come and watch students perform a variety of simple tasks, and conduct interviews.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 forced us to re-think our approach. Instead, for the past two years, we have held an “interview night” for industrial cybersecurity students.

The purposes of this event are to:

1. Allow program stakeholders to interact with the potential employees produced by the program.

2. Give every student a short and realistic interaction with a potential employer (regardless of whether the interviewer is actually hiring at the moment).

Interview Night format:
* Interviews conducted via Zoom.
* Each interview lasts ~30 minutes.
* Each interviewer conducts two interviews.
* Interviewer and student are paired in a Zoom breakout room.

Interviewers are free to craft their own interview questions, but they could include:
* What interests you most about a career in industrial cybersecurity?
* What course or project was engaging to you?
* We often face INSERT RELEVANT CHALLENGE, how would you suggest we address that?

We have 17 students finishing up the industrial cybersecurity portion of the program — be it AAS, or Intermediate Technical Certificate. About 7 of those will continue on for a Bachelor degree, and enter the workforce in January or May 2023, which leaves 10 that would like to enter the workforce in May. We have four or five students who will graduate with their BAS this May (2022).

Of these 17, twelve were able to attend Interview Night. We had 14 industry representatives show up — meaning that every student got two half-hour interviews! Industry reps hailed from INL, West Yost, Accenture, Nucor, 1898, TSA, Mandiant, Siemens, Duke Energy, and QED. I am so thankful for their fantastic support.

I would say that this year’s interview night was one of my favorite parts of my five-year adventure in education — the opportunity to show off the product– the students — to the consumer — industry representatives!