After more than two decades of working in the private sector, Sara Gopalan saw firsthand the gap between what students were learning and what was needed to be successful in the cybersecurity field.
She decided to take matters into her own hands and become a teacher herself. In just a few years, she has become an integral part of the cybersecurity education community in the Inland Empire region.
Gopalan is a Career Technical Education (CTE) Teacher at Temecula Valley High School (TVHS), where she specializes in Information and Communications Technologies pathway.
Her mother was a teacher in India and, while she didn’t initially see herself following in those footsteps, she’s glad that she did.
Gopalan started small by volunteering to teach a free course on computer fundamentals at her local library. She also became involved with CoderDojo, a worldwide network of volunteers who teach programming to children ages 7-17, and joined the CTE Advisory Committee at Temecula Valley Unified School District.
That work eventually led to an offer to become a CTE teacher. While Gopalan had decades of professional experience, she did not have teaching credentials. She found a program that allowed her to obtain them in six months and she quickly hit the ground building a three-course IT/cybersecurity pathway based on Cisco’s Network Academy curriculum.
In an effort to bridge the gap she saw between industry and education, Gopalan integrates guest speakers and soft skills like interviewing and teamwork into her classes.
“Because my course is part of career technical education, I need to connect it to what they’ll see in the workplace,” she said. “If they have to hire someone in the workplace, what are the skills they are looking for?”
Gopalan’s passion has positioned TVHS as a leader in the region and one that’s poised to become a statewide presence.
“Sara is a go-getter. She is incredibly resourceful and thorough in her work,” said Kim Randall, CTE Department Chair at TVHS. “She has brought her industry expertise to the classroom at TVHS, and we are so fortunate to have her working with students in this ICT pathway.”
In addition to launching a new pathway, Gopalan also helped build a CyberPatriot presence at her school. She recalls meeting with California Cyberhub Community Manager Donna Woods and wanting to emulate the success she’s created at Moreno Valley High School.
“The students I saw were so engaged the whole time, and I was so impressed by how much they had prepared ahead of time,” Gopalan said. “They had binders of notes and highlights on every page.”
Gopalan worked with Susanne Mata, ICT-DM Deputy Sector Navigator in the Inland Empire/Desert Region, to obtain funding for what are now five CyberPatriot teams in the Temecula Valley Unified School District.
Karen Walker coaches one of those teams at Chaparral High School. She said Gopalan’s leadership and guidance made her transition into coaching very smooth.
“Sara has helped me immensely with CyberPatriot,” Walker said. “She has done most of the work researching what we needed to do and how to do it. She also has usually been the one to fill out all the necessary paperwork for our district, both to get our teams funded and to get our buses to competitions.”
Gopalan said she’s learned a lot from Cyberhub community members like Irvin Lemus. She hopes that the Inland Empire will be able to achieve the success Lemus and his colleagues have in the Bay Area. She also hopes to collaborate with middle schools to establish strong feeder courses in ICT pathway in the Temecula Valley Unified School District.
“It is amazing to see how much the awareness about Cybersecurity has grown in the past two years,” she said. “We’ve gained great momentum, and I want to pass it on to middle schools so students will be prepared to try these classes and activities when they get to high school.”