Implementing Cybersecurity in the Classroom

By: Sophie Hosbein

Example of an image that is floated to the left side

High school students in Texas prepare for a CyberPatriot competition. Photo by Melissa Peterson (public


Huddled around a computer, Ben Martin and his teammates were trying to figure out a way to add the numbers together of every square in a 10,000 x 10,000 matrix.

"We found that even with all the optimizations and the best machine we had, our brute force method was going to literally take years based on some of our estimates," said Martin, a San Luis Obispo High School student.

Martin was part of a team of students who worked together to solve challenges like this in cybersecurity competitions called CyberPatriot. These competitions test students skills in solving cybersecurity problems.

Competitions, like CyberPatriot, take place in a wide range of middle and high schools. Their aim is to educate students about computer security and give them hands on experience in solving cybersecurity challenges.

Cybersecurity competitions are part of an initiative to provide more cybersecurity education in middle and high schools, said Henry Danielson, a child development professor at Cal Poly and Director of Technology at Coast Unified School District. "Promoting cyber awareness and what a cybersecurity posture means, will help all of us become safer while navigating cyberspace and computer security."

These competitions gave Martin a chance to practice solving real world cybersecurity problems, while also bonding with his teammates.

"Some of my favorite memories from our competitions are when we collectively realized that the solution to the problem ... was either incredibly simple, super cheesy, or had been in plain sight the whole time," Martin said. "This collective commiseration might sound like a strange thing to get excited about, but it was how our group learned and bonded."

Cybersecurity organizations provide cybersecurity curriculum that is free and can be used by any school. The lessons they offer focus on teaching students cybersecurity principles, responsible software development, data securing methods and cybersecurity ethics.

Locally, San Luis Obispo High School is offering an Intro to Cybersecurity class for the first time this year. Students also have the opportunity to participate in the Technology club and the Information Security club.

Although awareness has been growing, cybersecurity classes and clubs are still fairly rare. "It is something that wasn't even on the horizon of a high school teacher ten years ago," said Jan Fetcho, the computer science teacher at SLO High School.

Fetcho, who has been teaching at SLO High for 25 years, leads the computer science and robotics programs. Recently, she has started a cybersecurity program and will start teaching the Intro to Cybersecurity class in December.

However, she has experienced challenges raising consistent interest and attracting students to cybersecurity. Most of these issues stem from the limited number of electives students can take in high school and other competing extracurriculars that occupy their time.

"The problem with high school right now is there is only so much you can teach," she said. "Sophomore and junior year are really tight and it is hard to fit electives in there."

Data taken by the Enterprise Strategy group, which surveyed 524 millennials and post millennials found that 69 percent of respondents had never taken a cybersecurity class, while 48 percent had been involved in some kind of STEM program in K-12. Furthermore, computer science and technology was the college major that that most (23 percent) students showed interest in.

Even when cybersecurity classes are available to students, scheduling constraints may limit their ability to enroll. Cybersecurity competes with other related courses, such as computer science. "So what are [students] going to do, computer science or cybersecurity? Probably computer science because it is an AP class," Fetcho said.

Another concern of Fetcho's is that teaching underdeveloped high schoolers to understand and prevent hacking can have unwarranted consequences. This lack of a sound ethical foundation can lead some students who struggle in school to turn to the bad side of hacking.

"That is the other big problem: You're teaching these kids these skills, and their brain is not fully matured," Fetcho said. "They do not have a good concept of what is okay and what is not, and they don't have good impulse control as high schoolers."

Fetcho described one students who was very advanced in programming and computer science, but got a D+ in all of his classes because he didn't care about the subjects.

"How does he get his first job and let people know what he knows? These are the kids that end up being the underground hackers because they have to support themselves," she said, "so they turn to crime."

However, teaching these skills in a controlled classroom environment can reduce these instances. Students, like Martin, value understanding the basics of cybersecurity even if they end up going into another field.

"I enjoy having knowledge on the subject ... so I can protect my own privacy and security, but I have other ideas in mind”

Related Content