About 40 high school students have spent much of past two weeks learning how to hack a car with a computer, break into computer systems and race drones on the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus.
But there’s no need to be concerned. The National Security Agency is aware, and along with the National Science Foundation, provided funding for computers, drones and other expenses for the students.
The National Cyber Warrior Academy is one of 130 camps sponsored by the NSA and National Science Foundation, according to Bryson Payne, a computer science professor and director of the school’s Center for Cyber Operations Education. Payne said the 40 students were chosen from 182 applicants for the camp, which is in its second year at UNG. An $86,000 grant from the NSA and NSF provides for all expenses for the students to participate in the camp.
“The NSA funds this program hoping, of course, a few will go into federal positions or military positions in cybersecurity, but people who work for regular businesses — health care, education, hospitals — they need to understand cyberhygiene and how to keep their own information and their family’s and business information safe,” Payne said. “They’ve been seeing how easy it is to break into systems, unfortunately these days, and some of the things we can do to secure these systems.”
The 10-day camp, which ended with graduation Saturday, was designed to be fun for the students as they learned.
“We did a little bit of car hacking. We did some drone racing, so they got a chance to do some hands-on activities with a few different types of technology,” Bryson said. “We actually hacked my car. We plugged my car into a computer with a little $20 or $40 cable and we were able to see my dashboard running on a computer and the students learned how to record and play back those network packets to control a car, so some really fun things that we did together.”
Luz Acosta, a rising senior at Gainesville High, was already interested in a career in military intelligence before the program, but didn’t know much about what that meant.
“I’ve gotten a lot out of this program; they’ve been teaching me a lot,” she said. “Honestly, I came here with really no experience. It has taught me how to how to code. I’m not the best at it, but I am learning. I understand way more about computers than I did when I first started.”
Acosta said she plans to enter the U.S. Marines after graduation.
“If I don’t like the enlisted side of the military, I might go to college and then get commissioned as an officer,” she said.
She added that the best thing about the camp was how helpful the teachers were.
“When I didn’t understand something, I just asked a question and somebody would be there on the spot,” Acosta said. “When I needed help, the professors were really good about answering and showing why that’s the answer and why that works instead of just showing me and saying ‘That’s how you do it.’”
Martha Carrera, a rising sophomore at Gainesville High, where she and Acosta were involved in the Navy JROTC program, said she applied for the program after hearing about it from her JROTC instructor.
“I wanted to see if I was interested in it as a future career or not.” Carrera said. “I learned about hacking and getting into computers to retrieve old files. It was a really great experience.
“The most fun thing we did was that we flew the drones,” she added. “It’s really difficult; it’s more difficult than it seems. We took them back to Liberty Hall, where we’re sleeping, and I tried to land it on one of the benches. It fell on the floor, but it was really fun.”
Carrera plans to attend college after high school and said UNG is “high on my list.” If she does attend UNG, Carrera said she in interested in the school’s Corps of Cadets program.
Students in the cadet program, including Erin Hagebusch, a junior nursing major, served as mentors to the high school students at the academy.
“I really like learning alongside the students,” said Hagebusch, who hopes to be commissioned as an active-duty officer in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps after graduation.”We’re getting the opportunity to learn everything the students are and getting to know them is really cool as well.”
Payne said UNG is designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense from 2016-2021 by the NSA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Payne said he plans to apply to continue to offer the current program next year as well as two other camps — a National Cyber Warrior Academy in forensics and a camp for middle and high school teachers. The forensics camp would be an advanced camp in which students would learn things such as how “to see when someone has broken into your computer, how they got in and how you can stop leaks like that in the future and how you can recover a computer system or network from an attack,” according to Payne.
He said the teacher camp would provide coding and cyber information and give the teachers coding lessons to use in their courses.