Engineering Undergrads School Young Students on Cybersecurity

Posted: July 9, 2014 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: July 11, 2014 at 8:49 am

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By Preston Williams

When George Mason University sophomore Jessica Miers looks out at the young students she is instructing in Volgenau School of Engineering cybersecurity camps this summer, she recalls her jarring first encounter with mentors in the cyber field.

“I came into my cyber class thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got this,” she says with a laugh. “’I know cybersecurity. I have a password on my computer. I have a firewall. Good to go. This class is going to be easy.’”

"Mobile cybersecurity summer camp"

Jessica Miers (center) and Alex Handley (left), applied computer science majors, instruct a mobile cyber security camp in Innovation Hall. The Volgenau School of Engineering does extensive outreach year-round for area students interested in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Photo by Creative Services.

When the instructor used easily accessible software to crack Miers’s “super complex” password in about 10 seconds, she discovered she did not know as much about cybersecurity as she thought she did.

The Fairfax resident now pulls a similar eye-opening stunt for her students by showing them how easily she can access their supposedly deleted Snapchat photos.

“Just seeing their faces—I love watching that,” says Miers, who last week instructed a mobile cybersecurity youth camp on George Mason’s Fairfax Campus with fellow applied computer science major Alex Handley, a sophomore from Falls Church. “It’s funny to watch. But you know they’re learning something at the same time.”

“You don’t know as much as you think you know,” says Handley, who like Miers already has worked internships in the cyber industry. “But it’s easy to learn. That’s the thing. All these concepts that are out there, there’s plenty of research behind them. There are plenty of tutorials or places to learn online. It’s getting them over that first hump in the learning curve and it flows well from there.”

That’s certainly the case with the young students who are enrolled this summer. The mobile cybersecurity camp taught students about the limitations and possibilities of smartphones and how they can protect their personal devices. Another cybersecurity camp July 14‒18 will offer demos of cyber tools and cover such topics as computer ethics and common attacks. Some openings remain for that camp.

Volgenau encourages its undergraduate students to help promote the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields to children from kindergarten to seniors in high school, both with summer camps and weekend classes in the fall.

Miers’s hope is that some of the summer campers are as intrigued and inspired by computers and cybersecurity as she became in high school. There is an ever-growing need for college graduates with cybersecurity knowledge and experience.

“We’re just about to start our second year of college, but we can stand up here and say these are the internships we’ve had before even graduating from college,” says Miers, who has a software engineering internship this fall with Northrop Grumman. “You don’t have to be a PhD or corporate CEO to start doing the cool stuff in the field. I can be a second-year college student. I could be in high school. You can start whenever you want.”

“People like Jess and I having just learned the entry level and moving on to the more advanced levels, we’re the perfect people to go back down and teach the entry level because we know what worked when we were learning it,” Handley says. “We were there just a couple years ago. We want to raise people up with us.”

Write to Preston Williams at pwilli20@gmu.edu

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