A couple of years ago, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) public affairs specialist intern Samina Mondal was excited to be back in touch with her third-grade teacher. She wanted to discuss bringing cybersecurity into the classroom.
Mondal contacted her teacher, Jeffrey LeLoup of Forestville Elementary in Great Falls, Virginia, about a curriculum she developed, and that discussion paid off. Now, her ongoing CyberWeek is catching fire, and expanding to schools throughout the country.
Since joining NRL’s Corporate Communications team in December 2019, the George Washington University sophomore has spearheaded virtual cybersecurity seminars in classrooms near Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland. It has now reached students in other states such as Ohio and California, and promises to expand its wings even further.
CyberWeek is open to kindergarten students through high school seniors. Even at ages eight and nine, Mondal said, students grasp fundamental cybersecurity concepts such as password protection, phishing, and two-factor authentication. Other topics covered include cryptocurrency, Department of Defense (DoD) career opportunities and development, cyberbullying, and social engineering.
“It’s exciting to see young students eager to learn about how to secure their online presence at school, home and in their community,” Mondal said. “Some of these are concepts many adults are not fully aware of.”
As people rely on technology at an increased, almost exponential rate year after year, Mondal said, students must be able to use their knowledge to protect themselves from possible threats, attacks, and cyber mishaps.
“It is crucial to give students the opportunity to begin their cybersecurity education in their early developmental years,” she said.
So far, the curriculum has been taught to public school students in two Maryland counties, Prince George’s and Frederick. Baltimore City Public Schools also plans to use the curriculum. Since the program is virtual, it continues to expand nationwide.
Across the board, students’ reactions to CyberWeek have been positive. Their favorite segments included talking to researchers about the projects they work on, finding out what opportunities are available once they are out of school, how to recognize and avoid email phishing scams on the internet, and what to aim for in school to earn scholarships, internships and DoD careers.
“If you want to be an intern, you should be willing to put time in, work hard, learn new things and push yourself out of your comfort zone,” one student said.
Another student addressed cyber bullying.
“People should be more aware of cyber bullying,” the student said. “I was bullied at my school when I was younger, and I wish people would give more attention to this topic because this is a very serious matter.”
Brittany Donowho, a computer scientist at NRL, participated in the first CyberWeek at Oxon Hill High School prior to the pandemic.
“This program is incredible,” Donowho said. “I really wish I had been exposed to this kind of opportunity when I was in high school. It’s especially valuable to hear different perspectives because there is no one correct path, and getting that information at a young age might help with those moments of uncertainty, as well as pushing students to keep an open mind about their future.”
The interaction is valuable to NRL expert panelists as well.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for us to hear questions from students,” Donowho said. “It provides some insight on their thought processes and, more generally, insight into who will be the future of STEM.”
Because Mondal already had a curriculum developed when she began her internship it was relatively easy to build on it to provide career awareness, according to Victor Chen, NRL’s Federal Action Officer for STEM and head of Corporate Communications.
“We were able to boost it a little by offering NRL’s cyber experts to join the program,” Chen said. “I think putting students in direct contact with real-world cyber professionals gave it a cool perspective.”
Chen said this has helped grow the program. The first school to adopt the curriculum was Oxon Hill High School in Maryland. This was before COVID, which made it necessary to put the program completely online.
Chen said school officials liked CyberWeek, but after the COVID pandemic began, they needed an asynchronous option, and that’s what Mondal was able to accomplish, which was presented to students Dec. 14 in Frederick County, Maryland.
“Samina is doing an outstanding job creating a win-win for our organization and the schools,” Chen said. “We can expose the students to a little bit of what NRL and DoD do, and then potentially plant seeds with people who might become interns in the future, or even employees.”
The DoD STEM mission is to attract, inspire, and develop skilled talent into DoD. Likewise, the Naval STEM outreach program supports the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps education and outreach programs that invest in the DoN workforce. The goal is to continuously enhance the Navy and Marine Corps’ war-fighting ability. CyberWeek is supported by the National Center for Women and IT, Building Engineering and Science Talent, and NRL’s STEM outreach efforts.
To Participate in CyberWeek
The program can be accessed at https://sites.google.com/view/CyberWeekorgeducatorsguide/lessons
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Contact NRL Corporate Communications at (202) 480-3746 or email email@example.com to participate in NRL’s CyberWeek or for more information.