The Charger Blog

University Offers Unique Cybersecurity Education Programs for High School Students and Educators

Members of the University community are charged up to offer the GenCyber Teacher and Student Academies this summer. The NSF- and NSA-sponsored programs endeavor to promote cybersecurity awareness and education.

January 19, 2024

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Prof. Liberty Page (left), Dr. Mehdi Mekni, and Laura Brown '27 M.S. at the GenCyber Teacher Academy in 2023.
Prof. Liberty Page (left), Dr. Mehdi Mekni, and Laura Brown '27 M.S. at the GenCyber Teacher Academy in 2023.

As a high school teacher, Laura Brown '27 M.S. is focused on sharing her passions for education and cybersecurity with her students. She’s also looking ahead to this summer since the break offers a unique and exciting opportunity for her to share her passions with high school students and educators from across the region – as well as with her fellow Chargers.

Brown, a mathematics and computer science teacher at Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Conn., teaches all of the school's computer science classes. Her interest in learning more about cybersecurity so she could enhance her students’ classroom experience inspired her to attend the University's inaugural GenCyber Teacher Academy in 2022.

The program was such a meaningful and exciting experience that she returned last year – this time, as a presenter who helped to teach her fellow teachers. She’s charged up to again be a part of this year’s GenCyber programs. The GenCyber Teacher Academy and the GenCyber Student Academy are planned for July 8-12, 2024, and July 22-26, 2024, respectively.

“In my 16 years of teaching, I’ve never come across a professional development opportunity as feedback-driven and usable as the GenCyber Teacher Academy,” said Brown, whose experience also inspired her to pursue her master’s degree in computer science at the University of New Haven. “I learned so much, including about game design, which is something I want to teach. You’re getting so much more from the program than what you expect, well beyond what we’re telling you that you’ll learn.”

‘The foundation of an exceptional team’

Brown, who hopes to start a cyber club at her school, has excitedly been telling her students about the GenCyber Student Academy, which is open to 40 students (20 male, 20 female) who will be entering grades 9-12 in the fall of 2024. Designed to promote cybersecurity and online safety, the program trains students with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) backgrounds who are interested in exploring and applying cybersecurity concepts. Students are not required to have prior knowledge of computing or cybersecurity.

For Jarred Foley ’24, a cybersecurity and networks major, being a part of the program offers him hands-on opportunities to teach what he has learned. He served as the lead teaching assistant in last year’s program, helping to coordinate logistics and ensure that the technology was ready to go. He’s looking forward to helping to plan and facilitate the 2024 programs as well.

Dr. Mehdi Mekni (standing) with educators at the inaugural GenCyber Teacher Academy.
Dr. Mehdi Mekni (standing) with educators at the inaugural GenCyber Teacher Academy.

“Being part of the GenCyber academies is a wonderful opportunity because it allows me to be part of facilitating proper practices for major parts of the field such as cryptography, python, networking, social engineering, and cybersecurity awareness,” he said. “The goal is to provide a framework for teachers to be able to incorporate these lessons into their curriculum, as well as foster an environment for students that makes them not only interested but invested in pursuing some form of education in the cybersecurity field."

Open to 25 educators at public, private, or charter schools in the northeast, the GenCyber Teacher Academy offers educators with STEM backgrounds the tools and training to apply cybersecurity concepts in their classrooms. Educators receive Chromebooks free of charge, as well as access to lesson plans and an online community of current and past participants, enabling them to network and share how they’ve applied what they’ve learned at the University in their own classrooms.

"The success of the GenCyber Teacher Academy hinges not only on a strong purpose of fostering cybersecurity education but on the foundation of an exceptional team,” said Mehdi Mekni, Ph.D., the program director and an associate professor. “Without both, our endeavor to equip high school educators and inspire students in this crucial field would lack the depth and impact it strives to achieve."

‘The next step for students’

The programs, which include a diverse group of participants, are taught by industry leaders and University faculty, including Liberty Page, M.S., lead instructor and a lecturer at the University. They are also sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency, enabling students and educators to attend the programs free of charge.

"I am honored to be part of the GenCyber Teacher Academy and excited about the return of the GenCyber Student Academy to the University of New Haven through the generous support of the NSA and NSF GenCyber grants,” she said. “We applied for support for the teacher academy after five years of successful student programs to increase our reach.

“Research tells us that each teacher we train has contact with hundreds of students per year, but to sustain the student's interest, there needs to be a succession of programs,” continued Prof. Page. “By training teachers, we expose thousands of students to cybersecurity across the region. Our student academy is the next step for students interested in learning more about cybersecurity. Our mission is to address the shortage in qualified applicants by attracting as many students as possible to cybersecurity."

‘The importance of early exposure to cybersecurity’

Ardiana Sula, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at the University, was among the instructors who were a part of last year’s program. She was grateful for the opportunity to work with a team of dedicated experts. She helped redesign the networking module of the GenCyber Teacher Academy, ensuring it included the latest skills and trends in cybersecurity.

For Dr. Sula, it was critical to make sure the program equipped educators to bring these important skills, tools, and principles to their students.

High school students learning about cybersecurity at the University in 2021.
High school students learning about cybersecurity at the University in 2021.

“The importance of early exposure to cybersecurity for students cannot be overstated,” she said. “By introducing them to these concepts and practices at a young age, we are setting the foundation for their further development through education and training. This early engagement is crucial in preparing them to navigate and contribute to the ever-evolving field of cybersecurity.”

‘The forefront of cybersecurity education’

The programs offer a robust curriculum, covering the latest in cybersecurity education. They cover a variety of topics, such as Python, cybersecurity awareness, networking, cryptography, and social engineering. Throughout the intensive and immersive programs, participants play games, participate in hands-on labs, and listen to lectures from experts.

Elizabeth Radday, Ed.D., director of the Center for Program Research and Evaluation at EdAdvance, serves as the K-12 pedagogical expert, helping educators make lesson plans that are effective and engaging for high school students. She also ensures that the GenCyber Student Academy offers lessons that are appropriate and exciting for high school students.

"It is really wonderful to see how the teachers take their new knowledge about cybersecurity and turn it into really engaging and hands-on lessons to bring back to their students,” she said. “The power of the teacher academy is that it brings cybersecurity back into dozens of public schools with teachers who are passionate about the subject. This will go a long way in exposing students to this field and the career options. Hopefully, some will join the workforce because our state has a need for people with expertise in cybersecurity."

For Brown, the high school teacher, the dedication of the faculty, students, and staff who plan the programs has been why she’s been encouraging her students to attend – and why she herself has been returning each summer. She hopes this summer’s program will also include teaching AI in the classroom, and she’s looking forward to being part of a rich and immersive learning experience.

“As a teacher, this puts us on the forefront of cybersecurity education,” she said. “It gives me the freedom to say when I don’t know how to do something. It’s so valuable.”