As the Internet increasingly becomes integral to nearly all of our interactions, it’s more important than ever to know how to protect personal information from the threat of cyber attacks.
In Gainesville, 15 local students recently spent a week doing just that at the University of Florida’s GenCyber camp.
The National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency sponsor GenCyber camps for middle- and high-schoolers all over the country, aiming to teach teens about coding by showing them how to fend off cyber attacks and keep their own information safe. The UF camp is the only one of its kind in Florida.
It also seeks to identify future programmers who might want to work for the National Security Association — like ********, who hopes to pursue a career in counterterrorism someday.
The rising ******** School senior said cyber camp gave her a taste of what computer programming is like, as well as why it’s so important.
“It’s kind of easy to get people’s information,” she said.
******** explained that one of the activities high schoolers completed was hacking each other, then learning how to better protect themselves.
“You have to be careful with what you do on the Internet and how much information you give away,” said ********, who plans to take computer science classes when she starts ******** grade at ******** High this month.
The high school group got something of a survey course of computer science, learning about Python programming language and Linux, a widely used operating system, through a tiny computer called Raspberry Pi.
While it’s unlikely that all 15 students who went to the camp will go on to careers in cybersecurity, camp coordinator Christina Gardner-McCune said it might encourage students to at least continue with computer science education.
Gardner-McCune is an assistant professor of computer and information science and engineering at UF, and she said sometimes it’s difficult to lure students into a computer science major if they don’t have any prior experience with it — not that they need it, she said.
Students often don’t know what careers are out there, or they might be afraid to take a computer science class in high school and risk lowering their grade-point average if the course is too difficult, she said.
For that reason, Gardner-McCune helped host a coding event for high school students in December and secured the grant funding for GenCyber.
“It’s low-pressure,” she said. There’s no grade, but kids come out feeling empowered to take the next step with coding.
“I feel like I have a good background for next year,” said ********, who will take an Advanced Placement computer science class in the fall.
“That’s a compliment,” Gardner-McCune said, as the two high-fived.
For the middle school students in the camp, who were as young as ********, the activities were a little simpler. ******** High computer science instructor ******** said he helped teach the younger group with Scratch, a visual programming language.
Rather than writing hundreds of lines of code to make something happen on a computer, the students used visual templates to create mini-cartoons about the importance of cybersecurity.
“They actually engaged pretty well, considering the level of the content,” he said.
For example, ********-year-old ********, a rising ******** at ******** School, created a skit about why people should not pay attention to spam ads.
In her skit, one of the characters was enticed into providing his home address after clicking on an ad that told him he’d won $100.
“I never click on the ads because I never really have any money to buy anything,” she said. “But I know it’s fake when its punctuation is wrong,” or the ad is misspelled, or seems too good to be true.
You can also lose your personal information to a hacker if you don’t have strong passwords that are well-hidden, ********-year-old ******** said.
Once you get your passwords stolen, the ******** School ********-grader said, a lot of bad things can happen at the hands of a hacker.
“They can steal your stuff,” she said.