Story by Amy Pine
For one week last summer, middle schoolers from across the city became Savannah State University cyber geniuses, learning topics from hardware assembly to cryptograohy and everything in between.
In 2018, SSU received a $92,723 grant from the National Science Foundation and National Security Agency to launch GenCyber, a national program that seeks to increase interest in cybersecurity careers, create diversity in the cybersecurity workforce, help students understand appropriate and safe online behavior and how to be good digital citizens, and improve secondary school teaching methods for the delivery of cybersecurity content. While the national program is geared toward a wide range of ages — kindergarten through 12th grade — Program Director Bryan Knakiewicz, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil engineering technology and the grant’s principal investigator (PI), and Lead Instructor Alberto De La Cruz, coordinator of computer science technology and co-PI, chose to focus on Savannah-Chatham Public School System 6th-8th graders.
“Most students [at that age] are willing to learn anything about new technology,” says De La Cruz.
Though many of the students came in with little knowledge about computers, hardware or software, they jumped right in, learning how to build Raspberry Pis — small single-board computers that have all of the processing capabilities of standard computers. They also learned about networking infrastructure, using routers and switches, configured a small network and even had the chance to design their own video games.
“We took them from introductory level to intermediate programming skills [in five days],” says Knakiewicz.
In addition to learning about programming, network fundamentals and operating systems, the students also were introduced to various elements of cybersecurity, including cryptography, safe online practices, online ethics and other Cybersecurity First Principles. Each day featured a different speaker, among them an FBI agent, cybersecurity professional, lawyer, cryptology expert and police officer.
“Not only did this program get the students interested in STEM disciplines, but it also taught them basics in cybersecurity, and issues such as cyber bullying and online safety, which is very important. [These are topics that are] not covered in a lot of middle schools when [the students] start engaging in online activities,” Knakiewicz says. “The exercises were [designed] to stimulate their interest and knowledge of computers and to allow them to have fun so they [will want to] pursue [these areas of study] later in their education.”
During the weeklong camp, Knakiewicz and De La Cruz were assisted by 10 Savannah State computer science students, who served as mentors and helped with hardware and software installation, along with several SCCPSS teachers, who helped manage the classroom setting.
And while many students were skeptical when they arrived, the feedback Knakiewicz and De La Cruz received at the end of the program showed just how far the middle schoolers had come in a short period of time.
“Before I came to this camp, I didn’t know much about cybersecurity. We did many activities that were very fun and interesting,” one participant stated.
Another participant said that it was interesting to see how many cybersecurity jobs are left unfilled each year, while another was excited to learn about coding.
The students also learned very important lessons about online safety.
“I learned that even though you may have something private, people can always get into it. I also learned that people may not be what they seem that they are,” one participant noted.
The SSU GenCyber camp recently received funding to offer the program again in Summer 2019.
This article originally appeared in Arising, 2019.
Established in 1890, Savannah State University is the oldest public historically black college or university in Georgia and the oldest institution of higher learning in the city of Savannah. The university's 3,600 students select majors from 30 undergraduate and five graduate programs in four colleges ‐ Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Business Administration, Sciences and Technology, and Education.
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