HICKORY — Six hundred local middle and high school students got some interactive opportunities in cybersecurity this week when they attended Catawba Valley Community College’s Day of Security.
Students competed in hands-on "Amazing Race" type experiences meant to nurture an interest in cybersecurity careers. It was funded by a GenCyber Grant from the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation.
The college has hosted similar events in the past, but this was the biggest, and it offered more interactive opportunities for the students.
"They got to crack a password in Windows XP," said Rick Barnes, CVCC director of networking information systems and security.
"They played with ciphertext (encrypted or encoded information). They did a search for computer programs, actually configuring out the addresses, so they’re doing more technical stuff this year."
The participating schools included Northview Middle, Grandview Middle, Jacobs Fork Middle, Arndt Middle, Maiden Elementary, St. Stephens Elementary, Newton-Conover Middle School and East Burke High School.
Students moved from station to station in the Tarlton Complex at CVCC, performing small tasks as competitions using computer hardware, code breaking, website development and interactive virtual reality.
Newton-Conover Middle School seventh-grader Leo Olvera said he’s a PC gamer, so he felt at home being around all the technology.
Barnes hoped the big takeaway for the students would be an increased interest in the information technology field along with cybersecurity.
Olvera was thinking a little more about tech jobs by lunchtime.
“It’s interesting and it could be fun. It’s a lot more work because you have to go through a lot to get into a job in this area, but it would be worth it,” Olvera said.
“As the world evolves into a more tech-style place you have to adapt to it. You have to be more fluent with it. You can’t just be reading a newspaper when everyone around you has the news on their phone.”
St. Stephens Elementary sixth-grade teacher Sheila Pinkney, a CVCC adjunct English professor, said the digital world is the natural domain of her younger students.
“They’re very technology-driven, but they don’t always make the connection that their passion in this area could also be a skill they use to make a living and impact the world,” Pinkney said.
She sees the CVCC event as a way to "level the playing field" as well, so no matter a student's race, gender, socioeconomic background, they all get a chance to learn about this area of technology.
Newton-Conover City Schools Director of Student Services Rosanna Whisnant liked the creative way CVCC approached showing the students another side of computer programming with the mix of informative sessions and fun activities.
“We try to engage them in coding days and things of that nature, but there are so many fields they could go into that we can’t really expose them to all of them in a school setting, so this is a cool way to motivate them,” Whisnant said.
Newton-Conover Middle School seventh-grader Gabby Queen thought the event was time well spent.
“I did some activities I haven’t ever done and learned some new things,” Queen said.
She particularly enjoyed experiencing interactive virtual reality to play a game.
“It was more interesting because you were really immersed in it,” Queen said.
Ed Hallyburton is a career and technology education teacher at East Burke High. He brought several of his students who are already taking classes in Excel Access, Microsoft and multi-media webpage design.
He sees the topic of cybersecurity as something everyone will have to deal with at some point.
“We’re talking about election hacks. We’re talking about bank hacks, and most of us have something where maybe our bank has replaced our debit card telling us it was exposed somewhere in a data breach,” Hallyburton said.
He hopes the CVCC event helps his students realize even regular usage of their cell phones can expose them to a breach of security.
“They don’t realize the personal information they’re putting on there and on social media could cause some real problems for them,” Hallyburton said.
The event was co-sponsored by Prodigy Voice and Data owned by Catawba Valley Community College alumnus Rex Benfield.
For more information about the information technology programs at CVCC, visit cvcc.edu.
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