Buford students tackle cybersecurity

Students in Autumn Sutton's computer science class are learning about cybersecurity through an online game offering cash incentives.

Credit: contributed

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Students in Autumn Sutton's computer science class are learning about cybersecurity through an online game offering cash incentives.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Buford High STEM teacher Autumn Sutton has students who think they’re playing puzzles and taking on challenges when in fact, many are prepping for what may be their future careers in cybersecurity.

“They think cybersecurity is cool - it’s like hacking,” said Sutton, who launched the school’s first computer science class last fall. “They like puzzles, challenges and problem solving, so they consider this their ‘fun’ class.”

But the objective goes well beyond fun. According to Lindsay Linsky, an associate professor at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus, the country and state face critical shortages in the cybersecurity field.

“We have almost 600,000 unfilled cyber jobs in the country and more than 21,000 in Georgia,” she said. “It’s a major security issue.”

To address job force needs, Linsky and colleague Col. Chris Mitchiner, who directs UNG’s Institute for Cyber Operations, became co-leaders on a project to get more students interested in the field.

“We’ve developed posters, videos and teacher resources to give kids a nudge to try it,” said Linsky.

Their most successful recruitment tool has been connecting schools with CyberStart America, an online learning system designed as a game to introduce key concepts.

“As they’re playing, they’re completing challenges and learning about cybersecurity,” said Linsky. “Kids think only special types of people work in cybersecurity, when in fact, creativity and problem-solving abilities are what you need to be great.”

Sutton’s students started playing two weeks after she covered cybersecurity in class last fall.

“We went over phishing scams, viruses and how to operate safely online,” she said. “By the time CyberStart America was introduced, their interest was already piqued. It has a lot of tutorials connected to our curriculum that they can use to apply their knowledge to real-world situations, like finding something encrypted in an email. It’s like ‘Mission Impossible’.”

Since students started the game a few months ago, Sutton has seen them working on it in study hall, after class and has heard they’re playing at home. Part of the motivation may be recently introduced financial incentives: For the first time in its three-year history, CyberStart is offering Georgia students chances to win $500 cash prizes.

The money has made a difference, said Linsky.

“Last year we had about 900 students involved; this year, we have more than 4,000.”

Along with cash, students can win scholarships. Additionally, Buford High received a $15,000 grant for registering 390 students - the most of any district in the state. Sutton, who attended a summer workshop on cybersecurity at UNG where she learned about the program, said many teachers still don’t know about it.

“So many schools don’t have cyber teachers, and it’s so new so many don’t know how to teach it,” she said. “I already knew this program was out there, and as it grows, I think more parents will encourage their kids to learn about cybersecurity. But some are just finding out about it now.”

Information on CyberStart America is online at cyberstartamerica.org. Details about Buford High School can be found at bufordhs.org.

SEND US YOUR STORIES. Each week we look at programs, projects and successful endeavors at area schools, from pre-K to grad school. To suggest a story, contact H.M. Cauley at hm_cauley@yahoo.com or 770-744-3042.

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