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A Cyber Security State of Mind

Thanks to the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, Teachers from across the City and Beyond Will Be Giving Their Lessons a Security-Focused Spin

RET group of people

Abigail Mente teaches courses in the Living Environment and Earth Science at New York City’s High School for Leadership and Public Service, so when her own seven-year-old plays the popular world-building video game Minecraft, she has always enjoyed seeing the landscapes—the forests, caves, and lakes—he creates using the game’s block-based building system. This summer, however, she gained a new appreciation of another aspect of internet gaming she had not previously considered carefully: cyber security. “There’s a chat function on Minecraft that allows players to communicate with one another and share information, so that’s extremely important for an adult to monitor,” she says. “Having the honor of hearing security experts like Justin Cappos and Nasir Memon speak opened my eyes as both a parent and a teacher.”

Mente is taking part in the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering’s Summer of STEM, a collection of programs highlighting the importance—and fun—of science, technology, math, and engineering, and she represents two trends prevalent this year: a focus on cybersecurity and a drive to ultimately reach greater numbers of students by “teaching the teachers.”

The NYU School of Engineering’s Center for K12 STEM Education already runs one of New York City’s most in-depth teacher professional development programs, but with a call from the Obama Administration to do even more, the school has committed to providing high-quality STEM training for 500 additional teachers over the next decade—which, in turn, will have a cumulative educational footprint of 22,500 students over the first five years. “We are greatly expanding our outreach to teachers because we know that each and every one of them has the potential to inspire and educate hundreds of young people during the course of a career,” Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan has said. “With their help, we will prepare a new generation of students capable of meeting the vast technical challenges of New York and society as a whole and fulfill the promise we have made to the White House.”

Mente is part of an initiative called Research Experience for Teachers (RET) funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which brings middle- and high-school teachers to the MetroTech Center to hear talks by the School of Engineering’s cyber security experts and to team up with colleagues on various research projects. Her team is working on issues of child privacy, while others are focused on biometrics, private browsing, and more.

Teachers taking part in RET are expected to develop and deploy cyber security programs at their own schools, with curricula and other material developed during the sessions available to them at no cost. Many will also return to their classrooms prepared to coach teams for Cyber Security Awareness Week (CSAW), which takes place each year at the School of Engineering. The largest student-run cyber security event in the nation, CSAW includes such competitions as Capture the Flag, the Embedded Security Challenge, and High School Forensics. Russ Holstein, a technology teacher at IS 318 in Brooklyn, is in the group with Mente this summer and is confident that his students will be a force to be reckoned with when it’s time for CSAW. “I already have a waiting list of kids wanting to participate,” he says.

Professors Helping Professors

This year, not only middle- and high-school teachers are gaining the benefits of a School of Engineering research experience. Thanks to the NSF, several college professors from around the nation are visiting Brooklyn for their own experiences.

Javier Alonso Lopez, a Duke visiting assistant professor who will be making the move to the City University of New York system in the fall, is working closely on a research project with School of Engineering professor Thomas Reddington, whose area of specialization is the deficiencies in network systems and protocols that lead to them being exploited. “I was happy to find when I arrived for the RET that our interests coincided,” Alonso Lopez says. “I will definitely go into the classroom in the fall to teach my networking courses with a renewed security-based mindset, and I expect to continue to collaborate with Professor Reddington whenever possible.”

Ali Bicak, an associate professor of computer science at Marymount University, concurs that an enormous benefit of being at the School of Engineering is the opportunity to team build. “I’m working with Jay Koven, a doctoral student of Professor Nasir Memon, on a research project involving email forensics, and I would hope to continue collaborating even after the summer is over,” Bicak says. “And I’ve had the opportunity to get to know other School of Engineering cyber security experts, as well as fellow RET teachers who share my interests. All in all, I’ve met an enormous pool of talented people with whom I might collaborate on possible projects.”

Memon--the chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, founder and director of the Information Systems and Internet Security (ISIS) laboratory, and founding director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Security and Privacy (CRISSP)--is gratified to hear mention of that enormous talent pool, and he stresses that it includes the entire NYU community, and even beyond. “While we want all our participants to have an enjoyable, learning-filled summer, we hope they’ll consider it much more than a ‘fling,’” he says. “We’d like this to be the start of a long-lasting relationship that will find them engaging with School of Engineering faculty, additional NYU people and resources, one another, and the cyber security community as a whole. We look forward to seeing them and their students at CSAW and other events and hope they’ll always keep in mind that they play an important part in the drive for greater cyber security for all.”

The Next Generation of Experts

Despite the focus on teacher training and development, the youngest Summer of STEM participants did not miss out on cyber security-related fun and learning. Among the most popular offerings of the season was GenCyber, which introduced 75 high school girls to programming, virtuous hacking, and digital forensics during intensive and supportive two-week-long programs. One of them, Claire Dalkie, had traveled all the way from Toronto to partake of GenCyber’s lectures, hands-on training, and day trips to New York City technology firms. Mentioning a trip to Google headquarters as a highlight, she said, “I’ve always love technology and programming,” she explained, “and GenCyber opened my eyes to the possibility of a whole new field.”

New possibilities, new collaborations, new mindsets—those are exactly the results that the National Science Foundation and the School of Engineering had in mind.