From Tinkering to Teaching: Virginia Educator Wins National Cybersecurity Award

By Amie Knowles

December 13, 2021

US Department of Education Recognizes Virginia Teacher with Cybersecurity Award

From a young age, Kristina Rice enjoyed tinkering with electronics. Whether it was taking apart phones to put them back together or learning all about computers when they came out, Rice developed a natural knack for technology.

“I’ve always had an interest there,” Rice said.

That childhood interest recently turned into a prestigious national recognition. Rice, a teacher at Spotsylvania High School in Spotsylvania County, became one of two educators in the nation to win the 2021 Presidential Cybersecurity Education Award. The other recipient, Sergio de Alba, teaches at Miano Elementary School in Los Banos, California.

According to the US Department of Education, awardees are selected for their superior accomplishments as educators, academic achievement indicators, and leadership contributing to the field of cybersecurity. Recipients also instill three key components within their students: skills, knowledge, and a passion for cybersecurity.

“It feels amazing. I’m very humbled to be recognized for such a prestigious award,” Rice said. “To be recognized by so many, it’s amazing.”

Rice’s career didn’t start with national recognition; it actually began with a lot of hard work and a little bit of fate.

Open Position Becomes Opportunity 

After high school, Rice decided to continue tinkering with technology, earning an associate’s degree in Information Technology (IT) with a minor in Information Systems. However, the job market had other plans. 

Teaching was another one of Rice’s passions, and her local school division needed a business teacher, so she earned her bachelor’s degree in Business and went to work. The career move allowed Rice to teach a cybersecurity class at Spotsylvania High in addition to her core subject. 

“When I got into teaching cybersecurity, I had made a commitment to increasing the participation of underrepresented groups, particularly women,” Rice said. 

During the first semester, a total of 12 female students out of roughly 1,300 total pupils signed up for the IT-based course. The teacher didn’t let those numbers discourage her. Instead, she invested in her students that chose to take the course, ultimately founding Cyber Knights. The program provides students with technical resources to pursue their interests in cybersecurity. 

In addition, she also led the Girls Go Cyberstart team, comprised exclusively of female students, to a second place finish in the national championships in 2019 and 2020. After that, the business teacher’s cybersecurity course quickly multiplied in attendance. 

“It opened the eyes to lots of girls here in the school because they didn’t know we had the program [or] the courses here,” Rice said. “I had 12 girls in my first year [and] 10 of those girls [then] went out and recruited over 100 girls in the school that first year of teaching cybersecurity.” 

Teaching with Passion 

“I’m very passionate about cybersecurity. As soon as you walk into my room or you hear me speak, you can tell, like, just how passionate I am,” Rice said. “So by me sharing my passion for cybersecurity with my students, it’s like they catch the bug too. It opens up their eyes. It’s like, just sharing my passion with them and how passionate I am, it’s just infectious.”

Rice’s teaching goes beyond her Spotsylvania High School classroom. She also educates others throughout the state as an instructor for Virginia Tech’s GenCyber program, which provides summer cybersecurity camp experiences for students and teachers at the K-12 level.

“I assist all of the K-12 cybersecurity teachers from across the country who attend, and work with them on lessons, how to find resources, [and] how to implement these activities with their students,” Rice said. 

She also designed a pacing guide for educators teaching cybersecurity fundamentals and offers additional training upon request. 

Finding Resources

For childhood or teen tech tinkerers like herself, Rice suggested seeking out local resources to learn more about cybersecurity.

“[Students can] reach out to their school counselor to see if they can find some programs. Or a simple Google search — you can find so much online; there’s so many programs out there,” Rice said. “Even send me an email, and I would help assist a child wanting to find something in cybersecurity.” 

She also suggested looking into CyberStart America, a free national program which grants access to an online game that provides a fun, accessible gateway for high school students to explore their cybersecurity skills, and learn about the cyber industry and careers. Students can also learn about cybersecurity scholarships through the program.

“I think it’s just important with how the world is today, being so technology-driven, it’s important that we get people to understand that it’s important to be safe online,” Rice said. “It’s important to be careful what you’re clicking on.” 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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