School is out for the summer, but that did not stop Montgomery County Public School middle school students who were participating in Cybersecurity Camps supported by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s “Virginia is for Learners” initiative.
MCPS offered the free Cybersecurity Camps at five schools in June with help from Blacksburg High School teacher Jay Mathis.
During the two-day camps, any Montgomery County middle-school student could learn programming code, phishing techniques, protecting passwords and try their hacking skills.
Mathis hopes this camp will inspire middle school students to start considering a technology career in high school and to take a cybersecurity fundamentals course being offered for the first time in all four MCPS high schools next school year.
There are opportunities to program computer code, which incorporates problem-solving skills. Students will learn to recognize phishing techniques. Password creation and steps to protect digital information will also be a part of the curriculum.
A focus of the courses will also be citizenship and ethical behavior in the digital world. This will entail recognizing and combatting cyber-bullying.
Mathis said, “The effects on a community can be widespread, so students will learn how to reject and report incidents of cyber-bullying.”
The middle schoolers got a good sampling during the camp. Students compared real and fake Amazon websites. They listened to and studied transcripts of phone calls from scammers. They programmed simple computer tasks before learning to manipulate the code i.e. hacking.
“This is something we need to know,” said rising Auburn Middle School student Stacey Lewis.
Several BHS students from Mathis’ class last year were volunteering to help at the Cybersecurity Camps. One rising junior, Cedric Hutchings, had developed his own game program involving a science lab. He would be teaching the cybersecurity campers how to manipulate the code to their advantage in the game. The students will also be able to embed secrets into codes creating a computer virus.
“This is a chance to learn that technology is very fragile,” Hutchings said.
Job market reports state there will be 3.5 million cybersecurity job openings by 2021. To meet that growing demand, Governor Northam unveiled in April 2019 an educational initiative to support the goal of modernizing curriculum, instruction, and testing to ensure that students master important content while also developing the real-world skills that are more important to employers than ever.
“We need to transform the way we deliver public education, aligning our approach with the needs of a modern economy,” said Governor Northam about the initiative.
The MCPS cybersecurity courses next year being offered in the high schools will offer three certifications and 9 duel enrollment or community college credits.
Mathis said, “Twenty-nine of my 31 students earned a network certification. I hope to get more kids interested in starting on the cybersecurity career path in high school.”
Mathis hopes to have more MCPS students participate in hacking and programming competitions like CyberPatriot, an Air Force Association education program. To inspire students into cybersecurity and other STEM careers critical to the nation’s future, CyberPatriot offers competition rounds where teams are tasked with finding and fixing cybersecurity vulnerabilities while maintaining critical services. Students can earn national recognition and scholarship money.
BHS graduate Leah Keith is attending Virginia Tech in the fall. She will be studying business information systems and will be adding a minor in cybersecurity because of her senior year experience in BHS cybersecurity class.
Keith said, “Mr. Mathis got me on this path. I wished I had this camp experience back when I was younger.”
AMS rising sixth-grader Bradley Young summed up the camp experience, “This is a fun way to learn.”