University program for educators inspires high school teacher to start cybersecurity competition team | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #ransomware

In July 2022, I sat in a small Research Experience for Teachers (RET) lab on the third floor of the Pennington Engineering Building. One of my fellow teachers at the Washoe County School District was explaining how to utilize Wireshark to capture a data packet from a microcontroller unit (MCU) and analyze the packet for clues revealing its network security vulnerabilities. MCUs are single-purpose computing devices found everywhere, from building climate control to household electronics. MCUs fall under a much broader category in cybersecurity called the Internet of Things, or “IOT” devices. Securing the simple, inexpensive IOT devices continues to be a major focus within the cybersecurity industry.

The teacher had come a long way in a scant six weeks of study, especially considering that at the onset of our summer RET internship she had no prior knowledge in networking, IOT security or cybersecurity in general. I was impressed by how much she had learned and how effective she was at utilizing the cybersecurity tools to dissect the network packet and explain to everyone the MCU’s network vulnerabilities.

I stood up and began my presentation on an interactive, programmable IOT networking simulation using Cisco’s Packet Tracer. Packet Tracer is free and allows for educators and students to build simple to complex networks using simulated versions of the real thing (routers, switches, servers, workstations, IOTs). My experiences in RET enabled me to look at cybersecurity through a broader lens and thus I was able to take a tool commonly used to pass the Cisco Certified Network Associate exam and demonstrate its effectiveness in simulating and troubleshooting IOT vulnerabilities.

Getting students involved

My experiences in RET led me to discovery of the National Cyber League (NCL). A couple of the graduate assistants assigned to the RET labs were competing in NCL and walked me through a few practice problems in reconnaissance and password cracking.

A few members of the North Valleys CyberPanthers team gather before class.

I was immediately drawn by the competition’s “capture the flag” format and difficulty level – all of which motivated my decision to infuse ethical hacking into my high school cybersecurity curriculum and have students compete in NCL. Thanks to Principal Tomás Macaluso’s supportive efforts, we were able to form two teams. Given the post-secondary difficulty level of the problems, our CyberPanthers had a rough go of it in 2022-23; however, in just three semesters, we have grown in knowledge and abilities. Following the fall 2023 competition, our North Valleys Cyberpanthers are ranked ninth out of 600 U.S. high schools in the National Cyber League’s Power Rankings.

We couldn’t have achieved such a high ranking without the assistance of Professor Shamik Sengupta and his capable staff at the University’s Cybersecurity Center. To this day, I remain in close contact with Professor Sengupta and a few of our summer RET instructors, who remain willing to answer questions and provide cybersecurity guidance. For the second year, my level II/III cybersecurity students were able to attend the University’s Cybersecurity Conference, engage with industry professionals, check out cool graduate exhibits and try their skills in cybersecurity competition. UNR helped us overcome our restrictive IT environment by granting our CyberPanthers use of the University’s Nevada Cyber Range (a virtual environment for cybersecurity training, ethical hacking) as a safe environment for supporting cybersecurity curriculum and competition prep.

 If you are, or are considering, teaching cybersecurity in a Nevada high school, feel free to contact me. I’m happy to lend a hand or share my cybersecurity curriculum and experiences with others. For teachers wanting to establish a solid foundation in cybersecurity, I highly recommend contacting Professor Sengupta and the Cybersecurity Center for more information on their master’s degree program and summer RET internship.


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National Cyber Security