Comic book introduces kids to key concepts and careers in cybersecurity

Comic book introduces kids to key concepts and careers in cybersecurity

The number of cybersecurity jobs is expected to grow up to 33% in the near future.
fstop123/E+ via Getty Images

Kara Dawson, University of Florida and Pavlo Antonenko, University of Florida

A paper wheel with different symbols sits on a desk.
Students crack a secret message using this Caesar wheel as part of a challenge.
CryptoComics, CC BY

Three 9-year-old girls are huddled around a Caesar wheel, an ancient tool for sharing secret messages.

Cracking a code is one of many challenges the girls complete to help characters in CryptoComics escape a mysterious cyberworld into which they’ve been drawn.

CryptoComics is a curriculum designed to teach elementary school children – particularly girls of color – about cybersecurity – the practice of keeping digital information safe – and related careers. It also teaches about cryptology – the science of making and breaking codes. The girls partake in this program as part of their after-school activities in Atlanta.

A computer screen shows a teacher going over a lesson plan.
Teachers can go over important lesson plans with students.
CryptoComics, CC BY

Led by a team of educators and researchers, CryptoComics strategically integrates a digital comic book, apps and unplugged activities, such as painting rocks with ancient symbols and making invisible ink. It also features stories about cybersecurity professionals who are women. CryptoComics is freely available on cryptocomics.org.

We are both researchers in educational technology and STEM education. We are examining how the program – which we both helped develop – increases awareness about careers in cybsecurity.

The overall objective of the program is to spark girls’ interest in careers in cybersecurity. While it will take years to determine whether the program has the desired effect, early research shows that participants come out knowing about more potential jobs in cybersecurity than they did before.

Kids who’ve participated in the program have told researchers they “liked those jobs introduced in CryptoComics because they keep us safe from hackers.” They also liked that “you get to work on a team to figure out codes and break them.”

Vast reach of cyberattacks

Cybersecurity touches just about everyone in some way or another – from adults in the workplace and banking to schoolchildren. For instance, cybercriminals have been launching cyberattacks against U.S. schools at a record pace – as many as two per school day in 2020. Hackers also target individuals who use public Wi-Fi.

Cybersecurity professionals will likely be in demand for the foreseeable future. The federal government projects 33% growth in jobs in cybersecurity and related fields over the next decade or so. Yet women are highly underrepresented in the profession, making up only 11% of information security analysts.

Part of the reason is that young girls often don’t see themselves going into a field like computer science. But research shows that the attitudes elementary school children have toward STEM careers like cybersecurity can be changed. CryptoComics was designed to bring cybersecurity learning and career awareness to third to fifth grade girls through an engaging after-school curriculum.

A cartoon depiction of the four main characters standing together.
Akila, Bai, Carly and Jabari must solve a series of puzzles from the cyberworld.
CryptoComics, CC BY

The comic book, designed by media artist D.A. Jackson, begins when three friends – Akila, Carly and Bai – find a West African souvenir box belonging to Akila’s grandma. Akila takes a picture of the box with her tablet. Suddenly, she and her friends are sucked into a mysterious cyberworld.

As Akila narrates the story, students follow the girls and her little brother, Jabari, who communicates with the girls through the tablet. They crack codes and ciphers and solve puzzles. They also learn the history of cryptology and basics of cybersecurity to help the girls escape the cyberworld.

The six chapters of the comic book progress from basic information about codes and symbols to current cybersecurity practices such as creating safe passwords. Children explore important historical developments in cryptology approaches and technologies like the Navajo Code Talkers and the WAVES program. The Navajo Code Talkers were U.S. Marines of Navajo descent who used their native language to send secret messages over radio waves during WWII. WAVES – Women Accepted for Voluntarily Emergency Service – was a division of the U.S. Navy in which female cryptologists worked during WWII.

Children also use a variety of ciphers and codes to encrypt and decrypt information. This helps the comic book characters during their cyberadventure. Activities are grounded in symbols from different cultures such as a scytale from Greece, pictograms from West African and Native American culture and Freemason Pigpen ciphers.

In one panel a pink and blue colored heart is painted on a rock. Another panel shows missing letters in a text, and a final panel shows a soldier holding a spear in his hand.
Symbols and codes from different cultures hold important information for the main characters to use.
CryptoComics, CC BY

The curriculum culminates with games and simulations in which the children learn about cybersecurity. They learn to defend their device against the person who hacked Akila’s tablet. They learn about safe password practices and how to protect themselves from brute force password cracking – that is, using a program or guesswork to try every possible password combination; phishing scams that use fake emails to get people to click on malicious links; and social engineering attacks.

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For example, the comic book characters learn about social engineering when they go back in time to the British Government Code and Cypher School – now known as GCHQ. This is where they meet a WAVES servicewoman named Dorothy who turns out to be Akila’s grandma. They also meet Alan Turing, a real-life WWII cryptoanalyst.

Dorothy, Alan and the comic book characters work to crack a briefcase password using a letter found on a spy. Meanwhile, students participating in the curriculum work to crack the code via a simulation. Students learn that social engineering is a process hackers use to figure out passwords based on personal information such as a birth dates or names of family members.

A comic book panel shows a letter written from a young girl asking her grandfather to attend a birthday party.
Social engineering tactics are a gateway for hackers to get private information.
CryptoComics, CC BY

Preparing for cybersecurity careers

Over 200 elementary school-age students – 73% girls – from diverse backgrounds in 16 after-school programs across the Southeastern U.S. have participated in CryptoComics. Preliminary research, which we oversaw, has found that children enjoy the curriculum, learn how to encrypt and decrypt information in different ways and demonstrate awareness of cybersecurity professions. They also transfer knowledge and skills gained in CryptoComics to real-life experiences.

Teachers we have spoken with also say the curriculum “can be a game changer” for participating girls. The teachers report that students “quickly retained” concepts such as enciphering and deciphering – making and breaking different kinds of messages and codes.

Some students struggled with reading the comic book. They said they wanted audio support but they didn’t want a monotone computer voice. Instead, they wanted the audio “to act like the characters.” As a result, we recruited local voice actors to narrate the comic book.

The narration can be used by students who struggle with reading or who simply prefer listening to stories. Teachers confirmed that “the narrated version of the actual comic book itself has helped tremendously.” It has made the curriculum more accessible for struggling readers.

Tremendous career opportunities exist in cybersecurity. CryptoComics represents just one way to better position young children – and especially young girls – to take advantage of these opportunities.The Conversation

Kara Dawson, Professor of Educational Technology, University of Florida and Pavlo Antonenko, Associate Professor of Educational Technology, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

University of Florida Receives $5 Million Gift from Kenneth C. Griffin  to Boost Critical Computer Science Education for Teachers and Students

University of Florida Receives $5 Million Gift from Kenneth C. Griffin to Boost Critical Computer Science Education for Teachers and Students

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida (UF) on Wednesday announced a $5 million gift from Citadel Founder and CEO Ken Griffin to drive the expansion of its K–12 computer science education program. Maya Israel, associate professor of educational technology, will lead a team of researchers and teacher educators in building both a face-to-face and an online community of practice for teacher preparation and expanding computer science education across the state of Florida.

“Education is the most powerful solution we have to enable future generations of students and teachers to realize their potential,” Griffin said. “Computer science is central to our economy, and initiatives like CSforED are vital in preparing our country’s teachers with the skills and education they need to help our students seize on the opportunities ahead.”  

Griffin’s gift is part of a larger initiative focused on increasing access to high-quality computer science education across the United States and is one of four gifts that CSforAll, a central resource for individuals and organizations interested in K-12 computer science education, announced at the DEI Innovation Summit presented by Snap, Inc. on November 3.

The national philanthropic investments made by both individuals and corporations total $20 million and represent the next phase of CSforED – a CSforAll program that raises awareness of the need for computer science in teacher preparation and to build capacity in schools and colleges of education.

 “This investment in the University of Florida will solidify the national leadership work UF is already engaged in and create an opportunity for Florida teachers and students to be best prepared for our current digital workforce and economy,” said Leigh Ann DeLyser, co-founder and executive director of CSforALL.

Maya Israel speaking to attendees of the 2021 Board of Trustees event.

Maya Israel speaking to stakeholders at the 2021 Board of Trustees event.

With a proven track record of effective teacher preparation, along with research and programs focused on computer science education, state-wide reach and renowned faculty in its Institute of Advanced Learning Technologies, UF is uniquely positioned to expand computer science education across the state of Florida. 

Building upon existing efforts around teacher development and computer science inclusion, Israel noted this gift “will allow us to bring computer science into teacher preparation at scale.” The team will work toward integrating computer science into math, science, literacy and other disciplines to address the diverse needs of students in Florida classrooms and strengthen the state’s workforce. 

“Dr. Maya Israel is creating solutions for challenges faced by teachers and students in K–12 settings,” said Glenn Good, dean of the UF College of Education. “In addition to increasing equity and access, this transformative gift will help students develop the skills needed for the workforce of the future.”

The initiative will launch immediately and will follow a phased rollout over the next five years. Israel and her team will begin by bringing together researchers and teacher educators at UF and computer science education leaders from across the state to develop a coordinated vision for computer science teacher preparation before scaling up. To accomplish educator objectives, the team will engage stakeholders and expand advocacy efforts across the state, with organizations such as northeast Florida’s STEM2 Hub. 

“We join the University of Florida in celebrating this major gift, which will allow stakeholders to transform the landscape for computer science education across our state through teacher education,” said Kathleen Schofield, executive director of STEM2 Hub. “By empowering educators with knowledge and skills, we will build capacity to reach students across the state and equip them with foundational computer science skills they will need, leading to full participation in the growing technology sector and economic prosperity.”

Contacts

The final phase of the implementation will focus on ensuring the long-term sustainability of the initiative and evaluating the model’s viability as a best-practice approach for computer science education across the country. 

With the shortage of computer science teachers being identified as a major issue in the recent Action to Catalyze Tech (ACT) Report, Israel states “we must prepare teachers to have both the technical skills and instructional practices to reach all learners.”