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High school students suit up as cyber warriors at UNG
Residential program teaches participants about computer security
Bryson Payne, director of the University of North Georgia’s Center for Cyber Operations Education, talks Thursday to the first group of high school students in the Cyber Warriors program. - photo by RON BRIDGEMAN

Bryson Payne quickly and easily rattled off phrases like tactical network penetration, black box testing and cyber first principles Thursday to a class of nearly 40 students. They paid close attention, some nodding at one of his comments.

The computer science professor at the University of North Georgia is director of the university’s Center for Cyber Operations Education, which focuses on cybersecurity, cyber operations and cyber defense.

The 40 students were selected from 137 applicants to the Cyber Warrior Academy, a two-week residential program at the Dahlonega campus that will award them as “certified ethical hackers” upon passing.

The cybersecurity first principles Payne referred to include layering, least privilege, resource encapsulation, domain separation, simplicity of design, modularity, minimization and abstraction.

Teams of six to eight students used a variety of symbols to demonstrate the principles, making them on a 3-D printer.

A symbol used for least privilege was the White House, where employees may get a limited level of computer access. Legos were used as a symbol for layers, which when stacked on top of one another can provide more security. And minimization was represented by superhero Ant-man, who “minimizes himself to make himself safer,” meaning the less data there is, the less there is to steal.

Payne noted the students have three books — each as thick as a college text. Students have learned about web application hacking, malware threats, 3-D printing, and mobile and cloud computing.

The students are “pretty impressive,” Payne said. He said the exercises planned for one day were all completed “by lunch.”

Payne said GPA, an essay and previous computer experience were factors in selecting the students, more than a half dozen of whom said they have created a computer from parts. He said 36 of the students are from Georgia and four are from out-of-state.

The summer program is free to the students, thanks to an $88,000 grant from the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation GenCyber program.

The course includes discussion about flags that tell students when or where to look for vulnerable spots.

“Everything that runs is a possible attack” point, Payne said. “The more things that are open, the more possible attacks there are.”

Mason Clark, a rising senior at East Hall High School, said he sought a spot in the program to learn more about computers. He called it “an opportunity opener.”

Clark said he has been interested in computers “since 3 or 4.” He would like to major in computer science, beginning at UNG and later transferring to Georgia Tech.

He said he has certifications in four Microsoft programs, which he started working on as a freshman, but the school doesn’t have coding classes.

The UNG program has been a help, he said.

“Definitely, my coding has gotten broader,” he said, noting he has learned more about computer programming languages like Python, Java, HTML and PHP.