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Scottish Cyber Awards: Meet Derek Harris, Teacher of the Year Nominee

Ross Kelly

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scottish cyber awards

Ahead of the 2019 Scottish Cyber Awards, DIGIT caught up with some of the pioneering teachers helping to champion cybersecurity and STEM subjects across Scotland. 

The 2019 Scottish Cyber Awards will take place this month at Edinburgh’s Sheraton Grand Hotel. Now in its fourth year, the awards recognise and celebrate those who are championing and leading the way in Scotland’s cybersecurity sector. 

Hosted by the Scottish Business Resilience Centre the awards will shine a light on all of the inspirational figures and innovative companies across the country.

At this year’s ceremony, the Teacher of the Year award is a hotly contested category, with three teachers nominated.  

In this Q&A article, DIGIT speaks to Derek Harris, teacher of computer science at Douglas-Ewart High School in Newton Stewart to gauge his thoughts on the cybersecurity sector and how we can inspire more children to pursue careers in this rapidly-evolving industry.

Tell us a bit about yourself, Derek

I entered the teaching profession rather late, qualifying in 2005 at the ripe old age of 31! Prior to becoming a teacher, I had a career in the construction industry. However, I had always enjoyed the IT industry.

In order to enter into the teaching profession, I completed my degree in Computing on a part-time basis whilst working in construction during the day. Once I had gained my degree I trained at Jordan Hill University to gain my PGDE. During this training, I worked in Carson Management Systems and Compaq. Once qualified I completed my probation year at the Douglas-Ewart High School, where I was also offered a job. I was the sole Computing teacher at the school and developed all of the courses, both junior and senior phase courses. I had high uptake and high attainment.

However, with the introduction of CfE and the new SQA arrangements for Computing, it resulted in many pupils voting with their feet and so from having 4 certificate classes, ( 2 standard grade classes and 2 higher classes were the norm) it had fallen to just 4 higher pupils and 1 National 5 pupil in 2017!

This fall in intake was reflective of a national trend in the demise of Computing. Due to this fall in intake, I had to be proactive and so introduced NPA in Cyber Security. In order to inspire pupils and prepare them for the 21st century, I researched and introduced the Cyber Security course to the Douglas Ewart High School, being the first in the Dumfries and Galloway region to introduce the course.

What do you believe are the key challenges for encouraging youngsters to pursue careers in cybersecurity? 

As mentioned with the SQA changes in Computing many pupils had voted with their feet and left the department, this resulted in a rather negative attitude towards computing. The first hurdle was to try and gain pupil interest and inspire pupils to consider the Cyber Security course. The first year the course ran we had one class, with 16 pupils this has now grown with uptake increasing every year.

One of the key challenges in introducing the course was the requirement of having a dedicated classroom, with 20 computers which were not attached to the network to allow for the course to run. This required me to complete an in-depth rationale for the then Head Teacher Mr Cowie. In order to rationalise the course, I referred to the Woods document – this document highlights the need to provide an education which prepares our learners for the world of work.

The Woods report highlighted some worrying statistics in Scottish education in regards to the lack of positive destinations for our young force “This unemployment rate at 18.8% is almost three times the unemployment rate of 6.4% and double that of the best performing European countries and More than 50% of school leavers don’t go to university”

It is clear therefore that there are issues within the Scottish education system in helping our young learners to prepare for life in the 21 st century. By introducing cybersecurity, I felt that we were able to help prepare our learners for life outside of school. Cybersecurity is one of the fastest-growing industries, therefore there is a great need for cybersecurity experts, by providing my learners with the skills for this job market I shall be aiding and preparing them for the world of world, outside the classroom.

As a teacher, how would you explain or highlight the benefits of a career in cybersecurity?

In order to highlight the benefits of a career in cybersecurity to students, it is important that students are aware of the current demand of cybersecurity specialists in the present workforce. I have a cybersecurity information board, which I regularly update with the most recent and interesting cyber attacks. This allows pupils to gain an insight into the forever changing cybersecurity threats on businesses.

Moreover, I ask pupils to find articles at home with the recent Cyber Security attacks, which then form a discussion in class. I work with Developing the Young Workforce to highlight to pupils the careers in Cyber Security. Also, I invite people into the classroom to discuss the job opportunities in cybersecurity and have invited former pupils who have studied the subject back into the classroom to cascade their experience to current year groups.

It is also key to highlight to pupils that cybersecurity is an important career, it was crucial to gain the support of parents and carers in the local community. Research has suggested that even an effective school cannot educate children independently without the help of parents and carers.

Gender deficits in STEM subjects are an area of concern within the technology sector as a whole, how can we tackle this issue?

I have been completing my Masters in Education, if which I am in year 3. During this time I have studied the relationship between gender and STEM subjects. As a STEM teacher myself, I am all too aware that certain subjects can attract a certain gender. In my first year of teaching cybersecurity in a class of 20, I have 19 boys and one female.

This gender imbalance is a concern. In 2014, girls accounted for 7% of entries for Higher in Technological Studies, 20% of entries for Higher Computing and 28% of entries for Higher Physics.

Clearly something needs to be done. To tackle this issue, more positive female role models within STEM subjects need to be highlighted and earlier intervention with girls in primary schools is a must. Also making the topic more “hands-on” is key.

After much reading on strategies to help readdress the gender imbalance, there are a number of strategies which I have used. Research highlights that a girls impression of IT is already formed before even entering high school, and many view IT as being ‘unfeminine’.

Also, females were found to lack confidence in their own abilities and judge themselves harshly against their male counterparts in STEM subjects – this may be due to a lack of female role models. Research has suggested a lack of female role models in textbooks and pupil perceptions of IT being a ‘male domain’ has strong influence on women not entering STEM subjects.

Subjects such as cybersecurity – or tech/computing in general – tend to still struggle with ‘nerd’ tags and associated stigmas, how do we change this?

Cybersecurity does struggle with its image, however, its image is far more positive than the previous computing courses. Many pupils now are very interested and view it as “cool” to try and learn penetration testing skills etc, albeit in a moral and ethical manner. This has helped for the subject to have had a change in image. Also with the course content being more current, it helps to break down barriers with pupils who can see its relevance in everyday life.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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