Cybersecurity, makerspaces priorities for UCS

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published August 7, 2019

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STERLING HEIGHTS — The difficulty of learning cybersecurity is part of the fun for Stevenson High School student Noah Elkins.

“I’m not a fan of something being easy,” he said. “I like challenges, and the (Utica Community Schools) program there has taught me what I need to know before I get to the next step, which is deciphering and decrypting stuff that will probably come around college.”

Elkins, who will be a senior this fall, said he joined other Stevenson students earlier this year in a 24-hour Cyber Challenge cybersecurity competition. 

The team competed alongside roughly 300 other schools online by answering multiple-choice questions, decrypting messages and more. Topics dealt with everything from cryptography and networking to reverse engineering, school officials said.

The contest came from the National Governors Association, as well as the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center.

Elkins was one of six students on the Stevenson team, and this was their first time doing the Cyber Challenge. He said being a first-timer made it tough, but teamwork helped the students pull through, earning fifth place among the 68 Michigan teams that competed. 

“For me, not being as experienced as some of the other kids, it was a really good experience,” he said. “It was kind of cool that we actually placed more than a lot of schools.”

The Cyber Challenge is just one pathway that UCS is taking to teach its K-12 students how to be cyber savvy. For instance, the district recently started offering a high school cybersecurity class that also gives students the ability to get CompTIA A+ certification, a stepping stone to an information technology career.

And the school district is also engaging in training to reach younger students.

Helena Foust-Mantel, a Burr Elementary School media center teacher, said she recently went to a GenCyber Camp at Oakland University with other UCS teachers. During the camp, she programmed in the Python language and learned about 10 core cybersecurity principles that she said “gave a little more meat” to internet security instruction.

“I looked it up and thought it would be something good to add to my toolbox as far as benefiting the students,” she said.

Foust-Mantel said the cybersecurity principles include abstraction, layering and data hiding. One of her favorite principles is minimization, which means “keeping it simple.”

“The goal is elegant programming, so I tell my kids that minimization is really making coding … less cumbersome,” she added.

She explained the type of computer instruction that her school does at the elementary level. She said students do simpler “block programming” using languages like Scratch because it frees them from worrying about syntax errors.

Foust-Mantel also is excited about the future of makerspaces, as she recently became a Classroom Maker Ambassador through the Regional Educational Media Center Association of Michigan. 

She explained that a makerspace equips kids with hands-on methods that teach creative thinking and sharpen their skills in science, technology, engineering and math subjects, and in the arts. Students also gain access to tools where they can tinker and invent, often in the fields of coding, engineering and 3D printing exercises.

Foust-Mantel said she is teaching STEM principles early at the elementary level with hands-on activities through Code.org, such as making bracelets that turn a student’s name into a representation of binary numbers. 

She explained that one of the biggest rewards of her job is inspiring students.

“(It’s) probably the students that don’t shine in other places shine in coding,” she said. “They might not necessarily be creative or math-minded students. But for some, it’s where they find themselves.”

Find out more about Utica Community Schools by visiting www.uticak12.org or by calling (586) 797-1000.

Call Staff Writer Eric Czarnik at (586) 498-1058.

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