St. Vrain Valley district hosts summer classes on cybersecurity
By Amy Bounds, Times-Call
About 70 middle- and high-school students and 30 teachers are spending the week immersed in cybersecurity through camps and a professional development class at the St. Vrain Valley School District’s Innovation Center.
“We want to get teachers excited and students excited,” said Jennifer Peyrot, instructional cybersecurity and technology manager at the Innovation Center. “The students love this stuff. It’s such an engaging topic. It’s not just computer science. You have to be good at solving problems and persistence and teamwork.”
To offer the classes, St. Vrain Valley teamed up with the University of Colorado Boulder and the Northrop Grumman Corporation. The Northrop Grumman Foundation sponsors the CyberPatriot youth education program, which features an annual competition.
The summer program, which is in its second year, is part of a larger focus on teaching cybersecurity in St. Vrain.
Superintendent Don Haddad recently approved adding a cybersecurity and artificial intelligence lab to the Innovation Center, with a group of students and teachers planning to work over the coming school year on curriculum and outfitting the lab. The goal is to open the lab in the fall of 2020.
In a few years, the district also wants to open a P-TECH program, or Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools, at Silver Creek High School with a focus on cybersecurity. This would be St. Vrain’s third P-TECH program.
“We really see it as a cutting edge field,” said Axel Reitzig, the Innovation Center’s robotics and computer science coordinator.
Daniel Massey, a CU Boulder professor and faculty director of the Technology, Cybersecurity and Policy Program, is working with the school district on its cybersecurity offerings.
Massey, who is also a former program manager in the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Cybersecurity Division, said CU is providing funding for the summer classes plus expertise, while St. Vrain knows how to teach the content.
“It’s a very powerful collaboration,” he said.
The class options for students this summer are fundamentals of cybersecurity, advanced cybersecurity, introduction to machine learning, embedded systems with Raspberry Pi and robotics and space exploration.
They’re taught by a mix of CU Boulder students and St. Vrain teachers, including CU sophomore Connor Hansen. Hansen, who is majoring in computer science and astrophysics, is a Silver Creek High School graduate who wrote the curriculum for the school’s intro to cybersecurity class.
“The demand for cybersecurity professionals is so massively huge, we need to start in high school to get people interested,” he said, noting students getting bachelor’s degrees in computer science may not realize it’s a career possibility if they didn’t learn about it earlier.
Thursday, guest speakers from the National Security Agency talked to both the students and teachers, sharing information about cybersecurity careers and showing the students a working German Enigma Cipher Machine. The machine was used in World War II, with intelligence gained from Allied analysts solving Enigma messages helping to shorten the war.
In explaining how the machine works, NSA mathematician Alyssa — who said she’s not allowed to give a last name — talked about encryption methods, from simple letter substitutions to an unbreakable encryption using a different alphabet for each letter.
“It doesn’t matter as much what I replace the letter with,” she said. “It matters how much I vary it.”
Frances Pendell, who works for the NSA on academic engagement and policy, talked to the students about different career options and encouraged them to be careful on social media and to work hard.
“Say you’re in one of those difficult classes,” she said. “You have to keep trying. The work we do takes a lot of perseverance. You need to get tough, to have grit.”
Lauren Brooks, an incoming seventh-grader at Erie’s Soaring Heights PK-8, said she signed up for the class because she couldn’t use her iPad for the first two months of the last school year thanks to a hacker and wanted to learn how to protect herself.
Gavin Crawford, an incoming seventh-grader at Longmont’s Altona Middle School, was playing around with codes for a website to change the colors when he broke the site.
“I wanted to know more about how it works,” he said.
On the teacher side, Monica Moreno-Martinez, a STEM teacher at Longmont’s Longs Peak Middle School, said taking the cybersecurity class last summer “ignited a passion for me in computer science. It was just eye opening.”
She signed up again this summer to keep learning and plans to teach a cybersecurity class at Longs Peak in the fall. She’s also getting a master’s degree in cybersecurity.
“It’s an area that’s constantly changing and growing,” she said. “It’s just so cool. Kids will love it.”