Want to Decode How to Teach Cybersecurity? Go to Summer Camp

By Kate Stoltzfus — June 30, 2017 5 min read
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Summer camp isn’t just for kids anymore. Last week, nearly 50 educators gathered at Dakota State University for five days of training around one hot topic: cybersecurity.

At the GenCyber Teachers Camp in Madison, S.D., educators learned soldering techniques, computer forensics, and created circuit boards. They worked with their own Raspberry Pi computers, which are no bigger than a driver’s license (fruit not included). They picked locks, cracked passwords, and tried programming. Then they condensed each day’s activities into lesson plans they could take back to their own classrooms.

Lori Goldade, a high school computer teacher at Warner High School in Warner, S.D., was there for the second year in a row.

“Cybersecurity is not a topic that can be ignored in our classrooms,” Goldade wrote in an email to Education Week Teacher. “It’s critical that we help students understand the importance of becoming good digital citizens, discerning ‘fake’ from ‘real’ news, as well as understanding the risks that are ever-present in our online world.”

Summer Learning With a Mission

Since 2014, K-12 educators—as well as thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students—have attended GenCyber camps hosted by universities, schools, and nonprofits across the country. The first year had eight experimental camps, including one at Dakota State University. The numbers have continued to grow. This year, there are 131 camps in 39 states, Washington, and Puerto Rico, including camps designed specifically for girls. GenCyber’s goal is to have a camp in all 50 states before 2020.

The camps are fully funded by the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation (an average of $85K per camp) and must be free for every attendee. Beyond funding and a small set of guidelines, the universities and schools that apply to host can create a unique set of curricula and activities. The goal is to increase the number and diversity of students who want to study and pursue careers in cybersecurity, in part by improving classroom teachers’ abilities in these areas.

The key part of that is giving teachers better methods for teaching the topic as part of a computer science curriculum, says Robert Honomichl, Dakota State University’s camp director and a university instructor of computer science. As a former K-12 teacher, he thinks there hasn’t been enough professional development around technology in the last eight or nine years.

“Nationally, this is the fastest way that we can connect with the most students to get them interested,” said Honomichl. “The student camps are great—we see anywhere between 400 to 500 kids. But if I have 50 teachers, and they all go back and teach 20 kids, we are exponentially growing that pipeline.”

A Growing Need

The awareness of cyber hacks and online threats continues to spread, leaving the country wondering how to amp up cybersecurity efforts for the next generation. President Trump called for a review of cybersecurity education and workforce development in an executive order in May. Even the Girl Scouts now offer a badge for the youngest tech-safety experts. At the college level, Dakota State has more than doubled enrollment in programs for cybersecurity degrees in the last five years, the Argus Leader reported.

But though cybersecurity education has become a top priority for K-12 technology leaders, they often feel hampered by a lack of funding. It is rare for schools to teach cybersecurity, even in computer science classes. In March, my colleague Benjamin Herold reported that eight federal agencies and the National Governors Association support cyber education and workforce programs, but staffing shortages, curricula to match ever-changing technology, and time in the school day hinder progress.

Inspiring Students for the Future

John Tucker, a computer teacher who is building what he calls a “digital academy” at Odyssey Charter School in Palm Bay, Fla., rode his motorcycle 2,000 miles to attend Dakota State’s camp because he sees students’ untapped career potential. He lives in an area with a plethora of opportunities in technology, including military and defense contracting, but doesn’t feel they are often in reach for students at his Title I school.

“Opening my kids up to these experiences is my dream,” Tucker said. “I was hoping that [the program] would provide direction for classroom instruction and suggestions on the best technology progression for kids. What I’m looking to do is have them build real-life portfolios to get into college or the job of their choice.”

The camp “made my brain explode,” he says, “not only with technology in my own classes but also with the cross-curricular opportunities.” He plans to use Edgar Allan Poe’s The Golden Bug with the English, history, and math departments to teach a unit on cryptography.

Beyond shaping student interest in college and career around cybersecurity, the camps also provide a baseline for personal safety online. Wesley Swenson, a math teacher at Tahanto Regional High School in Boylston, Mass., who is assisting with Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s student camp in July, found that most of his students are using the same password for everything. “I am excited to take back some of the coding for the students, but just to help them with awareness is very relevant,” he told the institute in May. “Awareness of security and where the dangers lie.”

One of the most effective teaching methods Goldade will take away? Relating cybersecurity to issues happening now that students may be unaware of. “I begin many classes with a question, current event topic, or video clip that involves cybersecurity in some way,” she wrote. “I want students to see and think about the ways that cybersecurity impacts their lives, and providing a real-world context helps make this more authentic.”

Want to attend or host a camp in 2018? GenCyber has a full list of cities where camps are offered and online applications for future funding.

Photo credit: Jona Schmidt, courtesy of Dakota State University

Image by Flickr user Christopher Cook, licensed under Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.