July 16, 2018

Teaching Middle Schoolers about Cybersecurity

It’s the perfect age to talk to kids about how Internet-connected devices can be compromised.

Internet-connected devices are changing the way we live—and it’s happening fast. Half of all Americans already have some form of smart technology in their homes, such as voice-activated digital assistants (think Amazon’s Alexa) and thermostats that can be operated from a mobile phone app.

But EDC’s Kristen Bjork notes that most people have only a limited understanding of how Internet-connected devices operate. Fewer still know how they can be compromised. She believes that middle school is a perfect time to start talking about these issues.

“Most kids are already using the Internet by middle school, but they don’t understand how it works,” she says. “We have to help kids understand how messages and data are passed through the Internet so that they can stay safe and secure.”

Cybersecurity: Keeping Our Networks Secure is a new curriculum module for middle school students that examines critical issues in cybersecurity, such as how encryption and authentication keep data safe from hackers. Middle schoolers also learn the fundamentals of computer networking, including how computers on the Internet are connected and how messages pass from node to node through the global network.

Bjork worked with EDC colleagues Kevin Waterman and Kerry Ouellet to develop the 10-lesson curriculum. The materials are part of SAE International’s A World in Motion program, which has reached more than 4.5 million students since 1990.

In one activity, students mimic a computer network by arranging themselves in a cluster and then passing notecards containing a message along the network to a single recipient. In another round, individual students hold or alter the notecards in some way—representing what happens when a node is shut down or corrupted. At the conclusion of the unit, students build a marketing campaign for a fictional brand of self-driving car, explaining to potential buyers why the car’s connection to the Internet is safe.

Yvonne Boyd was 1 of 12 teachers across the country who piloted Cybersecurity Challenge. She became interested in the curriculum after seeing a number of news stories about cybersecurity—from individual credit card fraud to global cyberattacks.

“It seemed like the perfect opportunity to teach my students something that they didn’t know much about,” she says. “They had a vague understanding of what cybersecurity was. They had heard about cyberattacks on the news, but they didn’t really think about the role cybersecurity plays when they send messages to each other.”

Boyd credits the materials and activities with helping her students learn that information does not just “magically” flow over the Web—there’s a coherent structure in place that keeps data moving and safe.

Bjork believes that Cybersecurity Challenge fills a needed gap in the middle school curriculum, as well as being relevant. We’re living in a time when cyberattacks and website hacks have the potential to affect millions of people—including kids.

“Cybersecurity already plays an essential role in our lives,” she says. “I think discussions about cybersecurity belong in the classroom, too.”