Teaching Cybersecurity: Hartford Emphasizes Computer Science Education, Training

  • Trevor Gunn, 18, foreground, and Nicholas Thornton, 18, work on projects during a computer science class at the Hartford Area Career and Technical Center in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 8, 2018. Thornton was learning how troubleshoot a machine he was using. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Matthew Fungi, 16, left, watches Jacob Hayward, 17, clean accumulated dust from a machine that the class will be working to fix during a computer science class at the Hartford Area Career and Technical Center in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 8, 2018. The students go outside to clean computers that are extremely dusty. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Matthew Fungi, 16, left, hands a piece of hardware to LeRoy Martelle, a computer science teacher, during a class at the Hartford Area Career and Technical Center in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 8, 2018. Martelle teaches a computer science class that gives students a hands-on opportunity to fix computers. "My goal is that they identify their own interests," Martelle said. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2018

White River Junction — The tall, thin teenager sat on a stool amid a clutter of wires and well-worn laptops in the computer repair workshop at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center, talking about the raw power of computer hacking.

Ben Blanchard, 17, of Woodstock, clearly remembers the day he and his buddy were hanging out in a Woodstock Union High School teacher’s office after hours. The friend suggested that Ben go log onto one of the computers that were available for student use in the library. His friend wanted to show him something.

So Ben went to the library, alone, and chose a random computer. They were Dell OptiPlex 380s — back then, when he was only 15, that was a good machine, Ben said.

But moments after Ben entered his username and password, something went wrong.

One of those error messages with the exclamation point inside a yellow triangle popped up on Ben’s screen. But instead of a standard manufacturer warning, it read: “Get Hacked!” — a cheeky message from his friend, who was controlling the action from back in the office.

Then the computer shut down.

Ben went back to his friend, who could have taken over the computer from anywhere in the world with the software he’d discovered. Both boys were grinning from ear to ear.

“That’s really cool,” Ben said. “Can you teach me?”

Now, in an effort to keep pace with illegal computer hackers, and to put students into a growing number of high-paying cybersecurity jobs, the Hartford School District is recruiting students like Ben into a new kind of class.

Technical Difficulties

Vermont’s education officials have recently woken up to a problem in how the Vermont school system serves Ben and his computer-proficient peers.

Over the past 15 years, as schools worked to integrate technology into other classrooms, such as science and English, the focus on computer science as a field has withered.

“There are currently no active programs available for teachers that focus on Computer Science curriculum and provide them with the credits needed for an educator licensing endorsement in this field,” according to a new three-year digital learning plan crafted by the Agency of Education. “Therefore, we have fewer and fewer individuals with the actual credentials to teach Computer Science at the same time we find students having an interest in this field.”

College and universities throughout the Twin States graduated only a handful of high school teachers who were specialized to teach computer science, according to Code.org, a national group dedicated to promoting computer access.

That dearth of teachers has translated into a dearth of learning opportunities for Ben and his classmates.

Only 12 Vermont high schools offer an advanced placement computer science course, and the state only turned out 163 computer science-trained high school graduates in 2015, according to the national group.

But children with an interest in computer coding have other ways to learn about hacking, Ben said. They can talk to each other. They can watch simple, easy-to-follow online tutorials. Or they can delve into online forums where strangers share tips about how to pull off technological feats, like walking into a Wi-Fi-equipped coffee shop and using a program called Kali Linux to walk out with the passwords and financial information stored on each customer’s phone.

Another problem is that the lack of a pipeline of tech-savvy high school students has in turn contributed to a diminished computer engineering workforce in the state, according to the Vermont Technology Council, which found that, in 2010, just 1.87 percent of the state’s workers were computer specialists, making Vermont 28th in the nation.

Technical Support

As Ben spoke about his experiences last week, in another section of the classroom, his classmates, almost all boys, were either chatting casually about the Super Bowl, or absorbed in their computer screens, working under the watchful eye of LeRoy Martelle, the career center’s computer technology applications teacher.

Martelle is an unlikely hero — a quiet presence with balding gray hair and glasses, he himself has been forced to close his account after questionable purchases were made on his credit card, an apparent case of identity theft.

Though he has a deep list of computing credentials, Martelle says it can be difficult to keep up with the rapid-fire advances in technology. He recently took a course in Linux OS, a programming language. Before that, it was Python.

“I’m forever taking courses,” he said, sitting in his classroom.

Still, Martelle represents the Hartford School District’s best chance to teach not only coding, but a code of honor that will encourage Upper Valley students to use their budding powers wisely.

Martelle said the kids who seek out the class don’t fit any one mold.

“I’ve had goths. I’ve had very conservative, very liberal. Short-hair athletes and long-hair rock and rollers. The common thread is that they’re all into computers and seeing how they work.”

The entrance to Martelle’s classroom looks like a computing hall of fame, featuring pictures of everyone from the pioneering scientist Alan Turing, to SpaceX and Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Every year, Martelle said, at least one of his students declares that they’d like to be the next Musk. And because computer skills can open the door to almost any industry, others come in with their sights set on the military, or Nintendo, or movie studios like Pixar.

Others love hacking.

“Every time, there’s one that comes in and says, ‘I want to be the best cyber-warrior,’ ” Martelle said.

Martelle said each class is an opportunity to persuade his students to be good digital citizens.

“Hopefully I’ve taught them the responsibilities and respects of the trade,” he said. “We read journals. We see what happens when people go off track. We have a discussion.”

There are a lot of opportunities for those who stay on the right side of the law, he says.

“This is what’s expected,” he tells them. “And if you fail, you might never get another job in the field.”

Fixing the Network

Local and state school officials are working to overcome their shortcomings in computing education.

In an effort to get more teachers like Martelle in the pipeline and thinking about issues like cybersecurity, the Agency of Education is this year implementing significant changes to its quality standards for computer science teachers.

The new standards are much more specific in types of knowledge required, including a mandate that teachers must be knowledgeable about issues like hacking, identity theft and digital citizenship, among others.

Other Upper Valley schools are also reacting to the deficit.

In December, the Springfield, Vt., School District announced that it had become the first high school in the state to make one semester of coding a graduation requirement, part of a grant-funded push for more computer science instruction.

And in Hartford, Martelle’s course offerings are getting a complete overhaul, according to Doug Heavisides, the director of the career center.

The old ways are no longer working, Heavisides said.

“We’re a career and technology center. We have to provide the most up-to-date pathways,” said Heavisides.

That’s why, last summer, Martelle began training to take on an entirely new curriculum developed by a national group called Project Lead the Way. Every day, he spends his afternoon preparing for the switch.

Last month, Hartford began recruiting students for a new curriculum that will launch in September. When it does, career center students will be able to spend a semester on a new focus: cybersecurity.

Heavisides is aware of other computer science classes in the area — he mentioned Woodstock and Springfield as towns with good programs — but he said none of them offer a cybersecurity class, and that Project Lead the Way has confirmed that Martelle will be Vermont’s only certified cybersecurity instructor in their program.

The biggest reason for the switch is in recognition of the fact that cyberscurity is where the jobs are, Heavisides said.

“We’ve seen continuing growth of the cybersecurity threat and the need for cybersecurity professionals,” said Heavisides.

Martelle said he hopes the new class will do even more to protect students from the dangers of hacking, which have only grown in the past decade.

“Cybersecurity was a mystery at one point,” he said. “And now it’s a problem.”

Completing the Circuit

One student who’s already committed to Martelle’s cybsersecurity class is Jacob Friesenhahn, a 17-year-old junior from Windsor.

Jacob understands the appeal of hacking — aside from whether it’s right or wrong, it’s just fun.

But under Martelle’s tutelage, Friesenhahn has heard countless examples of computer hackers facing big consequences for skirting the law.

Getting a legitimate job in the cybersecurity industry has all the upsides, and none of the down, said Jacob.

“You’re not getting in trouble for it, and you’re still doing pretty much the same thing,” he said.

It takes a smart person to engineer a cyber-based attack, he concedes, but it also “takes a very smart person to counterengineer something like that.”

Ben, too, seems like he’s on a straight path to success. He’s a proud Boy Scout, and is consumed with becoming an Eagle. He cites the Lone Ranger as one of his favorite TV shows, and is one of those who plans to take his cyber skills into the Air Force, or Marines.

“There’s illegal hacking and then there’s ethical hacking,” Ben said. “Ethical hacking is the really cool one.”

Ben said Martelle does a good job of drawing the line between right and wrong, and would be surprised to learn that a classmate had become what they refer to as a “black hat” hacker.

“From what I’ve heard and what I’ve experienced, I feel like this class has a really good reputation,” Ben said. “Mostly because of Mr. Martelle and the way that he teaches.”

Jacob said there is potential for one of his classmates to “accidentally fall into the wrong circles,” but said the classroom culture that’s flourished under Martelle is functioning like an antiviral program that ferrets out bad ideas, and deletes them.

“We stand up for each other. We build each other up,” Jacob said. “That’s one of the things that I really like about this class. We’re like family here.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.