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Students learn to fight off real-world cyber threats


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The attention of 27 students from Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo high schools is fixed on computer screens in the Pikes Peak Community College classroom at the Catalyst Campus.

The students are working on their first task in a weeklong cyber boot camp: learning to open images in two operating systems and make changes using a remote virtual machine — a host computer that has greater capacity than the computers on which they’re working.

During the morning session, the students sat through instruction on cybersecurity basics, with which many of them were already familiar. But this afternoon, they are riveted.

“For some of them, this is the first time they’re using a virtual machine to open up an image,” says Maj. (Ret.) Scott Lynch, camp coordinator and senior instructor for the Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Denver North High School.

The students, from five Denver high schools, Air Academy and Sand Creek high schools in Colorado Springs, and Pueblo West High School, are being supervised by four guest teachers who recently completed a cyber teaching workshop hosted by PPCC. By assisting at the workshop, they are putting into practice what they learned.

The hope is that some of these students will join the next generation of cybersecurity professionals, but even those who don’t go into cybersecurity as a career will leave the classroom at the end of the week with a greater understanding of how to stay safe in a dangerous cyber world.

The cyber camps, which are held across the country, are part of the CyberPatriot program created by the Air Force Association, a volunteer organization that supports aerospace, cyber and STEM education.

“Ten years ago, the Air Force Association identified the need to reach out for cybersecurity professionals and how to start this early,” Lynch says. “So they came up with a program that gives a competitive edge using teachers and mentors. This is the 11th year, and it’s open to anybody who wants to do it.”

According to a 2018 study by (ISC)², a cyber and IT security professional organization, there is a shortage of cybersecurity professionals that numbers close to 3 million globally, with more than 300,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in the United States.

Cyberseek.org states that there are more than 10,200 cybersecurity job openings in Colorado. All of these numbers are expected to grow in the next couple of years.

The CyberPatriot program aims to inspire students to follow careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines critical to the nation’s future.

At the heart of the program is the Cyber Defense competition, in which teams of middle- and high-school students assume the roles of newly hired IT professionals tasked with managing the network of a small company.

In a series of online rounds, the teams explore a set of virtual operating systems and are charged with finding and fixing cybersecurity vulnerabilities while maintaining critical services.

There are three levels of local competition, then regional and state levels. The top teams earn all-expenses-paid trips to the national finals competition, where they can earn national recognition and scholarships.

The 4th Annual Cyber Symposium took place in Colorado Springs in September. - HELEN ROBINSON
  • Helen Robinson
  • The 4th Annual Cyber Symposium took place in Colorado Springs in September.

Many of the team members attend camps, learning basic skills at standard camps and more complex concepts at advanced camps. The students from Denver North are part of a CyberPatriot team.

Students learned how to protect their personal devices and information from external threats, as well as how to harden entire networks running Windows 8, 10 and Ubuntu operating systems.

“Throughout the week, we take them further into how to maintain your privacy online, how to generally act ethically online, and how to set yourself up to go learn more and more of whatever you’re interested in,” says lead instructor Steve Schwandt of Regis University.

Guest speakers from SecureSet, the Colorado National Guard G6 office, the State of Colorado Office of IT Governance, and Coalfire, a Denver-based cybersecurity consultant, provided the students with further insight into cybersecurity as a career.

The camp culminated in a team competition that simulated cybersecurity situations and mimicked the national CyberPatriot competition.

The four teachers who assisted Lynch and Schwandt attended PPCC’s GenCyber Teacher Camp, a one-week boot camp for secondary educators.

Eleven teachers from six Pikes Peak area school districts attended the camp to learn how to incorporate cybersecurity core principles into their curricula, said Terri Johnson, assistant professor and facilitator, computer networking at PPCC.

“We teach them in a way that is understandable for teachers who have not taught cyber before,” she says.

“There’s definitely a need for cybersecurity education at a broad level,” Johnson says, adding that PPCC is also building cyber modules that can be incorporated into any course, “even auto mechanics — because cars can be hacked.”

One of the teachers who completed the GenCyber camp and then assisted at the CyberPatriot camp was Jeff McGuirk, education specialist with Calhan School District RJ-1.

The CyberPatriot program is helping prepare students for the cybersecurity jobs that are vacant, but it’s not just for computer information majors, McGuirk says.

“It’s also for everybody else,” he says. “Our kids need a full understanding of how to act and react” to cyber threats.

“The world truly has changed, and it’s changed fundamentally,” he says. “We have now gotten to a point where the foundation and conceptualization of who we are as a species is changing — the same way it changed [from hunter-gathering to an agrarian society], but at an incredibly faster rate. We had hundreds, if not thousands of years to adjust from going after the rabbit to planting the first types of corn; we’re doing this in decades or less.”

Kids “are beginning to learn and practice all of the soft skills needed to be a proactive, positive member of society” as early as third grade, McGuirk says. “But just because you can do something [like hacking] doesn’t mean that you should.”

Students also need to have the knowledge to answer questions that arise when “you’ve got something the size of an iPhone that can crack all of our encryption systems,” he says.

McGuirk plans to put the lessons he learned in the cyber courses into practice. He has preliminary approval to create a cyber operations center for high school students in his district.

“We’re doing what’s called gamification,” he says. “We’re using games to teach because, first, if kids think it’s a game, they’re learning three times faster. They’re learning visually, they’re learning auditorily, and through the use of the mouse, they’re learning kinesthetically. So they’re learning faster than I could ever teach them in a classroom, and they’re getting real-world experience.

“I cannot teach 30 kids in a classroom. If I step back and act as a facilitator, I am guiding their learning. And I can do that with 30 kids in a classroom.”

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