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

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.

Educational technology professor champions improved access and inclusion in STEM

Educational technology professor champions improved access and inclusion in STEM

Education opens the door to endless pathways of opportunity, but equity in education remains among society’s most pressing challenges, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

With a background rooted in special education and a path forged through advocacy-based research, Maya Israel, associate professor of educational technology, has dedicated her career to increasing equity, improving access and expanding inclusion in STEM to foster success for all learners.

“Especially when we’re thinking about students with disabilities, there are some long-standing biases about what kids can and can’t do,” she said. “… There’s this perception that they’re not or can’t be as successful as their peers, and that’s simply not the case.”

Israel, who also serves as the research director of Creative Technology Research Lab (CTRL), a UF lab that investigates how to meaningfully engage all learners in technology-mediated learning, has a robust research agenda with a special focus on K-12 computer science (CS) education, computational thinking and Universal Design for Learning.

“My K-12 teaching background, essentially, makes me think about how we can intervene to help students be successful,” she said. “… I like the analogy of reading: There are some students who pick up reading very quickly and then there are other students who need some more explicit instruction. At the end of the day, they’re all going to be effective readers, but some students need an approach that’s a little bit more targeted.”

Maya Israel, Ph.D. 

Through a variety of interdisciplinary, collaborative research projects, Israel is examining these issues from all directions — identifying existing and persisting barriers, and exploring instructional strategies, learning processes and innovative technologies that can build much needed bridges.

Most recently, Israel and a team of computer science education leaders were awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to cultivate a Research Practice Partnership (RPP) that explores and addresses the barriers to inclusive elementary CS education.

The partnership will include P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, Broward County Public Schools, New York City Public Schools and the San Francisco Unified School District to explore ways to expand inclusion in CS education for students with disabilities.

“We’re at the point where students with disabilities are generally included in computer science education, Israel said, “but, oftentimes, teachers don’t have the pedagogical tools to support them in a way that is accessible, engaging and inclusive.”

Among her latest research endeavors are:


Universal Design for Learning for Computer Science (UDL4CS): Partnership for Inclusive Elementary Computer Science Education, Funded by the National Science Foundation

A Research Practice Partnership, UDL4CS aims to build sustainable partnerships among districts across the country around the shared problem of practice of fostering equitable K-8 CS education and meaningful inclusion of students with disabilities. The team, led by Israel, will examine the current level of inclusion of K-12 students with disabilities and explore the barriers to inclusion that are unique and shared among districts. Based on the findings, the team will create web-based professional development resources to build the capacity of CS educators and equip them with the tools to support all learners.

UDL4CS offers a new lens for exploration in cultivating inclusive CS experiences for students with disabilities and those at risk for academic failure with past projects including the NSF funded Teaching All Computational Thinking Through Inclusion and Collaboration (TACTIC), also led by Israel.

Learn more about UDL4CS


Including Neurodiversity in Foundational and Applied Computational Thinking (INFACT), Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Education and Innovation Research program

Leveraging a consortium of leading researchers and practitioners in computational thinking led by TERC, INFACT seeks to design an inclusive, comprehensive computational thinking program to support a wide range of learners in grades 3-8. Utilizing novel methods, such as eye-tracking and facial recognition, the team is developing responsive technologies for the program to provide adaptive, customized pacing based on students’ individual strengths and struggles as well as embedded supports to aid in student attention, metacognition and social-emotional learning.

Learn more about INFACT


Collaborative Computing Observation Instrument (C-COI) 

The C-COI was born in response to the need for a more nuanced way to understand the learning processes of K-12 students while they engage in computational thinking and programming activities. Developed through dynamic, multi-year efforts with a diverse team of researchers and collaborators, the C-COI grew from white boards, to spreadsheets, to finally a video analysis instrument that allows researchers to study students’ computational behaviors. This video analysis instrument can help researchers better understand students’ time on tasks, persistence, help seeking and help giving, collaborative problem solving, social behaviors and challenges faced while computing. The C-COI tool was recently made available for use to researchers across the country.

Learn more about C-COI

“Ultimately, what we want to provide kids with the tools to be expert learners on their own and to provide teachers with the tools and the strategies they need to support students,” she said.

Israel recognizes the power in collaboration to build a brighter future where boundless opportunity is possible for all learners. Among her latest collaborative efforts driven by a passion to transform education is the UF College of Education’s newly forming Institute of Advanced Learning Technologies (IALT).

IALT coalesces the power of researchers in educational technology, learning analytics and related fields to find data-driven emerging and advanced technology-based solutions to dramatically improve learning outcomes globally.

Supporting learning technology faculty and student researchers, state of the art labs and teaching facilities, and academic, industry and government partners, the institute will demonstrate the university’s collective power in creating and disseminating advanced learning technologies that improve learning outcomes on an international scale.

“If we can bring together people that have different areas and backgrounds — that’s where the innovation happens,” Israel said.

Look for Maya Israel on an upcoming episode of Unstoppable Minds, a podcast from the University of Florida looking at the challenges and triumphs that come with a life in academia and research:

Microsoft Support for Mathematics Innovation

Microsoft Support for Mathematics Innovation

It’s not every day that a UF center has the opportunity to share its work at a Fortune 500 company’s all-staff meeting — but that’s what happened after the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning recently announced the first round of data for its new, adaptive learning tool that prepares students for the challenges of middle grades mathematics.

For nearly two decades, the Lastinger Center has been on the leading edge of educational innovations. Its members have consistently worked to maintain a connection to existing needs for a variety of educators and learners alike, and to forecast educational trends. Long ahead of the spring of 2020, center researchers had identified an increased demand for quality online educational tools, which were accentuated by responses the coronavirus.

To meet this exponentially increasing demand Math Nation, a Lastinger Center innovation, accelerated the development and launch of the new On-Ramp to 6th Grade for teachers and students to use in Florida, Michigan, Mississippi and South Carolina. Then On-Ramp offers quality digital mathematics tools to provide individualized instruction and remediation.

Since August, more than 40,000 questions have been completed within the new tool. Earlier this year, Microsoft U.S. provided nearly $1 million to develop the On-Ramp to 6th Grade tool, including its adaptive diagnostic and instructional pathway to ensure that students have anytime access to tailored, research-based instructional support.

“Education must evolve to meet the unique needs of 21-century students,” said Philip E. Poekert, Ph.D., center director. “COVID-19 revealed the need for innovation to better serve all students. This investment from Microsoft U.S. ensures these students will approach 6th grade with confidence and well-prepared the rigor of middle school mathematics.”

The new On-Ramp to 6th Grade platform diagnoses, remediates and accelerates critical K-5 grade mathematics concepts and skills through its adaptive diagnostic assessment. This information is used to create a personalized learning path for each student. Student data are provided to teachers in real time so that they can quickly identify topics on which to remediate at both the individual and classroom levels. Students are empowered to select instruction that fits their learning style, pace and language so there no barriers to access.

“When students receive the early, personalized support they need to succeed in middle school mathematics, the opportunities are endless,” said Kate Johnson, president of Microsoft U.S. “We’re incredibly encouraged to see so many students using the On-Ramp to 6th Grade platform to help build their math muscles at a time when access to high-quality digital learning tools has never been more important.”

Beyond The On-Ramp to 6th Grade, Poekert hopes “to live up to the inspirational challenge initiated by Allen and Delores when they founded the center… and the tremendous passion and dedication that our associates bring each day as they grow the center.” With a focus on the future and proven ability to leverage domain expertise the team at the Lastinger Center will continue working toward a world where every child and educator, regardless of circumstances, experiences high-quality learning every day.

On Ramp 6th Grade Screenshots

Team led by higher education professor receives NSF grant to improve access and success in Information Technology programs

Team led by higher education professor receives NSF grant to improve access and success in Information Technology programs

The University of Florida Institute of Higher Education (IHE) has been awarded $600,000 from the National Science Foundation to enhance access and success among underrepresented students in community college Information Technology (IT) programs.

The project, titled “iConnect: Improving Access and Success for Underserved Students in Information Technology Programs Through Education-Industry Connections,” was designed in response to the lack of diversity and equity in community college IT programs as well as local workforce shortages in the IT industry.

Led by principal investigator Dr. Justin Ortagus, director of IHE and assistant professor of higher education administration and policy, the project is a research-practice partnership with Indian River State College (IRSC), a Florida College system institution, that will partner with IHE to develop and implement interventions designed to improve access and student outcomes for historically underrepresented students in IT programs.

iConnect will identify and address current barriers to IT enrollment, redesign gateway online IT courses to optimize student success, and connect with local IT employers to integrate recommended industry skills into IT curricula.

“The iConnect project sits at the intersection of so many important issues and allows IHE to partner with one of our nation’s top community colleges to ensure more students gain access and experience success in high-demand IT fields,” said Ortagus.

Co-principal investigators at UF include Drs. Lindsay Lynch , clinical assistant professor of higher education administration and policy and Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, associate professor of educational technology. Co-principal investigators at IRSC include Dr. Kendall St. Hilaire, assistant dean of IRSC Virtual Campus, and Clifford Kemp, master instructor of computer IT.

The iConnect project will aim to improve outcomes related to the number of underrepresented students who are enrolling in IT programs, student success in gateway online IT courses, and student persistence in IT programs. All outcomes are designed to lead to an expanded, more diverse IT industry pipeline in the surrounding area.

“IRSC is excited to partner with UF IHE on the iConnect project,” said St. Hilaire. “Through the creative work of faculty, instructional designers and workforce leaders, IRSC students will benefit greatly from project activities and learn more about high-quality career opportunities in IT.”

The project is expected to be completed in 2023.

Justin Ortagus, Ph.D.