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Should we train more students to be hackers?

Photo of Chris Berdik

Tech Smart

Chaitu Dandu is a 16-year-old computer hacker. But he isn’t after your passwords, social security number or credit card information. Neither were the hundreds of other young hackers who converged on a snowy Brown University earlier this month for Hack@Brown, a 24-hour “hackathon.” Dandu is part of a growing trend of high school kids entering the hacker ranks. Plenty of educators say that’s a good thing.

For many people, the word ‘hacker’ conjures up shadowy criminals unleashing malicious cyber attacks. Beyond the headlines, however, there’s a whole world of hacking that has nothing to do with criminality and everything to do with becoming inventive, autonomous and more secure members of a society immersed in technology. Broadly speaking, these young hackers fall into two groups — security hackers, who learn how computer networks can be attacked in order to better defend them, and hackathon hackers, who compete in all-night coding binges to invent new applications and re-engineer hardware.

A record 1,500 hackathons around the world are planned for this year, up from just a few dozen in 2010, and their focus is broadening from developing lucrative apps to solving problems with coding for an array of issues including dental, fashion, immigration, transgender and social justice. In this Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 photo, Karim Bhalwani, right, speaks to participants at the FinCapDev San Francisco Hackathon in San Francisco.

A record 1,500 hackathons around the world are planned for this year, up from just a few dozen in 2010, and their focus is broadening from developing lucrative apps to solving problems with coding for an array of issues including dental, fashion, immigration, transgender and social justice. In this Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 photo, Karim Bhalwani, right, speaks to participants at the FinCapDev San Francisco Hackathon in San Francisco.

We need more of both types, desperately. Network security experts say we’re falling behind the criminals. Tech companies, especially startups, can’t find enough talent to expand. America’s K-12 computer science offerings, while improving, are inadequate to the task. While teaching more kids to code is important, advocates for hacking education say it adds a critical mix of ingenuity and improvisation to the technical know-how.

“It’s the hacker mentality,” and technology employers can’t get enough of it, says Glenn Norman, a network security consultant who teaches the subject at the University of New Mexico.

Norman also teaches security hacking to high school students at an after-school club in Albuquerque called Warehouse 508. He’s a co-developer of “Hacker High School,” a nine-lesson curriculum published by the Institute for Security and Open Methodologies (ISECOM), a nonprofit network security consultancy. Access to Hacker High School’s cloud-based lab exercises costs $150, but the lessons themselves are free, and the site gets thousands of visitors every day.

Ava Scherneck, a high school technology teacher in Redlands, California, started using Hacker High School last fall. She downloaded the lessons after attending a cyber security summit. “People from the National Security Agency and Homeland Security were there, begging us to start teaching this stuff in high school,” she says. Globally, about a million network-security jobs can’t be filled because of a lack of qualified people, according to a 2014 report by Cisco Systems.

After Scherneck’s students learn network basics — how they function and where they’re vulnerable — they assume the role of cyber villains and practice their skills at www.hackthissite.org, an open-source security training ground. She also stresses ethics and the law.

“Hackers aren’t bad people,” Scherneck says. “It’s the criminals who know how to hack who are the bad people.”

Hacker High School’s founder, Pete Herzog, managing director at ISECOM, says that despite the curriculum’s popularity, it’s becoming too costly to support and update, and won’t survive much longer without corporate sponsorship.

In another effort to cultivate young hacking talent, the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency helped fund computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University who built an online “capture the flag” security game for high school students. To play the game, teams of high-school hackers go after encrypted bits of data (aka “flags”) while solving a mystery. In 2013, the game’s first year, about 2,000 high school teams tried to crack the data locked in an alien robot that crash-landed on Earth. Last year, about 10,000 teams competed to find a missing person using only the clues in a discarded flash drive. The challenges start with simple cyphers and get progressively more difficult and technical. After 10 days of competition, the top three teams win a few thousand dollars, but the games themselves remain online indefinitely.

Competition, plus the thrill of on-the-spot invention, is also why young hackers flock to hackathons. The first (college) student hackathon was in New York City in 2010; dubbed hackNY, it is now an annual event. These days, there are hackathons somewhere nearly every weekend, filled with students making things — usually Web applications, new functions for open-source software or other high-tech gizmos, but not always. Hackathons have also spawned brick-and-mortar creations such as a discreet, wearable breast pump and an inflatable shower that bare-bones travelers can hook up to a bathroom sink.

One of hackNY’s organizers, Chris Wiggins, is an associate professor of applied physics and mathematics at Columbia University who wanted to give students a taste of the grind, and the exhilaration, of startup culture.

“As a teacher, I used to think a huge part of my job was social engineering to trick people into wanting to learn something,” he says. “And these events are full of students working really hard on things that are technically difficult, and they’re not getting paid.”

As college hackathons proliferated, high school hackers started to filter into the competitions. Soon, they started high-school hackathons. One of the first was held in March, 2014, at Bergen County Academies High School in Hackensack, New Jersey. Jared Zoneraich, now a senior at the school, organized the all-night coding bash (hackBCA) along with other kids he’d met at college hackathons. Four hundred students showed up, and hackBCA II is scheduled for next month. [March] Zoneraich says high-school hackathons encourage newcomers who might be intimidated by college hackers.

“People think programmers are math geeks who sit alone with their computers and don’t talk to anybody,” Zoneraich says. “Hackathons are so important, because they let you know this is fun.”

Back at Brown, Dandu and his team were planning to build software that could control a robotic arm using colors to code for specific movements and tasks. “I’ll probably work all night,” he predicted.

Like most hackathon regulars, Dandu shares his projects online. Some are more useful than others. At his first hackathon, last September, his team tried to transform a remote-control car into a self-driving vehicle that would stream video back to its owner as it drove around.

“Things went awry,” Dandu says. At one o’clock in the morning, they realized it wasn’t going to work. So, they abandoned the idea and instead programmed a prank, hacking an application called Yo whose members ping each other with the word “Yo.” Dandu’s team added push-button Yo spam, which won “funniest hack”.

“You could send 80 yos per minute. We spammed people we know. People spammed each other. It was just crazy.”

According to Herzog, of Hacker High School, even students who don’t go into high-tech careers benefit from a little hacker know-how.

“We want to make kids more than cash cows for the app makers and social networks feeding off their privacy,” he wrote in an email. “We want the next generations to control their future, which is electronics and information. The only way to do that is through education.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

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