A new program at West Wilkes High School encourages students in 10th and 11th grades to pursue careers in cybersecurity, computer science or applied mathematics.
The three-year program is designed to cultivate interest and confidence in students who traditionally are underrepresented in technology and computer science fields.
Jennifer LeBlanc, a math and computer science teacher at West Wilkes High, leads the program and successfully applied for a $180,000 grant from the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund to help make it possible.
Called “Securing the Future,” the program runs from February to November each of the three years.
LeBlanc said the program provides students with opportunities to explore cryptology and cybersecurity through hands-on problem-solving challenges, community partnerships and a two-week travel study to Maryland, England and Poland. (Cryptology is the science concerned with data communication and storage in secure and usually secret form.)
“Although careers like computer science and cybersecurity are receiving national recognition as fast growing and high paying, students in our region often don’t consider these as options for their future,” said LeBlanc.
She said up to 12 students in 10th or 11th grade will be selected each year to participate. This year, students applied in January and the selection was made on Feb. 8.
“We plan to take applications during October for the next cohort of students. It will be a different group of students each year, with the exception of choosing one or two student leaders from the previous cohort.”
She said the include recruiting half of participating students from groups underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. These include females, minorities and first generation college students.
“I am excited that we were able to meet the goal with this first cohort. We have seven males and five females. Two of the participants are Hispanic and five are first generation college students.”
The program is held after school and on school holidays. It averages one after-school workshop and one activity day per month, plus additional days in the summer and a two-week summer travel study.
Dr. Rick Klima from Appalachian State University’s Mathematical Sciences Department is assisting LeBlanc with curriculum and activities, including all of the cryptology workshops.
She said Klima is an expert in cryptology, with numerous publications in that field. He worked as a cryptologic mathematician for the National Security Agency prior to his tenure at Appalachian.
Dr. Rahman Tashakkori, an ASU professor and chairman of the ASU Computer Science Department, helped LeBlanc refine the application for the Burroughs-Wellcome grant and is providing college student mentors as needed to assist with programming skills.
In addition to his expertise in computer science, Tashakkori has extensive experience managing grant programs for underrepresented students in STEM.
LeBlanc said North Wilkesboro-based InfusionPoints, a cyber security company, is helping with the design of beginner cyber security challenges. Students are also using the Cyberstart America curriculum to build problem-solving skills.
“The students will learn many different encryption methods, including substitution, transposition and public key ciphers. They will learn about decryption techniques, such as letter frequency analysis,” said LeBlanc.
“Students will be shown examples of encryption and then work in teams to encrypt and decrypt ciphers. They will also work together to develop computer programs for faster decryption. Students will work in teams on challenge days to solve a variety of hard problems.”
She said that behind every turning point in modern wars was a significant breakthrough in communication decryption. “All of these cryptologists are unsung war heroes, many of whom were women. Bringing this context to what students understand about hacking and cybersecurity lends weight to the importance of these fields,” said LeBlanc
The program includes an all-day team building/leadership boot camp at the US Whitewater Center in Charlotte this spring.
Students are learning about a different genre of ciphers in one two-hour cryptology workshop held after school each month. They’re given challenges to complete before each workshop.
LeBlanc said the focus of the first of three all-day challenges is “out of the box problem solving.” She described it as a mixture of “The Secret,” “National Treasure” and “the Amazing Race.”
The second all-day challenge is more technical in nature and includes hacking challenges, such as Build an Enigma Machine and a Capture the Flag challenge provided by InfusionPoints.
The third is building a challenge course for next year’s participants in the program.
LeBlanc said the program’s travel study has a two-fold purpose.
The first is to provide students with a historical connection on the importance of the United States being on the forefront of encryption and decryption methods.
The second purpose is getting students out of their comfort zones. “Many students do not spend time away from their home/community until they go to college. The travel study is important in the development of their confidence and global perspective,” she said.
Travel study is about three-fourths of the grant budget. This includes visits to the NSA in Maryland and the Bletchley Park Codes Center in England.
LeBlanc said there were plans to visit the Enigma Center in Poland but this was replaced by a trip to the Netherlands and Belgium instead due to the situation in Ukraine and the influx of refugees into Poland.
Remaining funds are directed toward supporting other activities throughout the year, including material, transportation, refreshment and other miscellaneous expenses.
LeBlanc said program activities/challenges are the same for all of participants. Students and their parents are required to sign commitment statements saying the student intend to participate in all activities.
For more than 25 years, the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund has supported informal STEM programs in North Carolina through its Student STEM Enrichment Program (SSEP).
The SSEP supports diverse programs with a common goal: to enable primary and secondary students to participate in creative, hands-on STEM activities for K-12 students and pursue investigation-based exploration in BWF’s home state of North Carolina.
These awards provide up to $60,000 per year for three years. Since the program’s inception in 1996, the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund has awarded 201 grants totaling $33.7 million to 103 organizations that reach more than 43,000 North Carolina students.