Posted: Tue, 01/12/2021 - 4:45 pm EST
Hack·er: an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer. (Merriam-Webster.com)
It is no surprise that the mere mention of the word “hacking” in any computer science class immediately captivates the entire classroom. Students of all ages are intrigued by the prospect of engaging in an activity that seems so mysterious and overly technical. The ability to hack feels like a superpower, a talent shared by few, and only by those with highly advanced technical skills. By teaching hacking in the context of cybersecurity, we can capitalize on this excitement and introduce students to facets of computer science that go beyond traditional coding. Students feel empowered to learn skills that seem otherwise unattainable and do so in very engaging ways.
The gender gap in the computing workforce is widening. So, what are some ways we can spark interest, particularly among female students, to explore ethical hacking and cybersecurity—topics of ever-growing importance and skills in great demand in today’s world?
Expose your students to the world of ethical hacking. Ethical hackers are individuals who legally gain access into networks for the purpose of testing the strength of computer systems. As the Internet of Things, or IoT, continues to explode, the number of connected devices worldwide is expected to exceed 21 billion by 2025. Homes, schools, smart cities, hospitals, and governments are increasingly storing and sharing data online, leaving them vulnerable to attacks. There is an urgent need for professionals who can understand and test these systems to keep our data secure. The fact that computer science can address these very real societal problems can serve as a strong incentive for girls. There is something so powerful in the knowledge that hacking superpowers can help billions of people!
Present hacking challenges as creative problem-solving experiences that go beyond sophisticated technical knowledge. Hacking implies curious exploration, discovery, and a deep understanding of how something works. Through participation in capture the flag challenges (CTF), students are exposed to unique, engaging entry points to learning about ethical hacking and cybersecurity topics. Challenges are presented as puzzles and strong problem-solving skills are necessary for success. Along the way, students dive into many topics including binary exploitation, reverse engineering, cryptography, web vulnerability, Linux, Python, and digital forensics. My students are often amazed at the new skills they acquire, all while having fun the entire time!
Introduce hacking as a collaborative activity. A hacking club encourages students to collaborate on challenges and competitions. One of my favorite activities includes Girls Go Cyberstart, a free platform that aims to expose girls to cybersecurity through an engaging online game. Students can compete in challenges, with the top teams from each state earning a spot in the national championship. A small group of my students worked on the challenges last spring, just for fun, and I was amazed at their level of engagement and the support they offered each other.
I invite you to explore this fascinating world with your students. Please share any of your experiences, resources, or questions in the comments below!
Hands-on hacking activities:
AAUW STEMpacks - A cybersecurity curriculum created in partnership with Symantec with links to videos and online activities
CodeHS - The Introduction to Cybersecurity course is designed for middle school students and its focus is to teach fundamentals. The course includes some good resources for learning about ethical hacking.
Cryptoclub - Fun games to practice ciphers and cryptography.
Girls Go CyberStart - A cybersecurity competition for individuals or teams. This is a great option for clubs!
CyberStart Go Game - An entry into the types of challenges offered during the Cyberstart competition, presented in a game format.
picoCTF - A computer security game developed at Carnegie Mellon University. An official competition is hosted each year but the challenges are open year-round for practice and exploration.
Pac-Man Treasure Hunt - Learn commands to navigate the terminal. This is a fun introduction to the command line.
MIT Terminus - An engaging text adventure game and a great introduction to learning the command line interface.