Whatcom Community College is already making a name for itself as a place to be trained in the rising field of cyber security. Now it has taken another step — offering a four-year degree in cutting-edge information technology.
Last fall, Whatcom CC offered a new bachelor of applied science degree in Information Technology Networking, the two-year school’s first four-year degree, to 24 students. Officials say it is the only program of its kind to be offered in the northwest corner of Washington state.
The IT program has been in the works since 2014, after the college secured a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Whatcom is a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance and Cyber Defense.
Recently, the college received another NSF grant for the same amount to develop an online version of the program that will be offered in Fall 2018. The online version will allow for an additional 24 students to be enrolled in the program.
“It is a pathway for students who have graduated with an IT degree from a community college, because typically those credits will not transfer to a university,” said Corrinne Sande, computer science and information systems program director at Whatcom. “We have a lot of colleges that have a two-year program [Whatcom is one] and those students do very well in their jobs, but eventually if they want to move up into more managerial positions, they usually need to earn a BA (bachelor of applied science).”
The program differs from others because it includes a lot of interactive, hands-on learning. Each class in the program has a small group set-up, rather than a large lecture format, and four hours of lab time associated with it.
“We’re preparing people for the workforce,” Sande said. “It’s not book knowledge, [students] actually know how to configure a router, set up sensors, and secure them. That’s what’s cool, is they’re ready to go to work as soon as they graduate.”
The program is composed of three focus areas recommended by the National Security Agency. Input from an advisory committee made up of local industry members was also incorporated into the program’s curriculum, approved by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in 2016.
The curriculum, which will continue to adapt with time, covers niche subjects that many colleges do not offer, such as how to secure industrial control system networks at places like refineries, substantial employers in the North Sound.
“All of these [computer information systems] programs require input from industry and adjustments to whatever industry needs,” Sande said. “For example, our industrial control system course, we put that in there specifically because we had students getting jobs in refineries and utilities, and they needed to have that information.”
Janice Walker, dean for workforce education at Whatcom, said the college decided to pursue the program because of the growing workforce gap. Walker said there is a statewide and regional need for employees with IT networking skills.
According to Employment Security Department data, annual estimated employment openings in the CIS field in Whatcom County numbered 279 in 2015.
“[The program] could assist with economic development in terms of attracting businesses to the community, because they know there’s a qualified workforce available to take in and work in their companies, who are people who typically want to remain in the community,” Walker said.