Cyber Smoothie, Anyone?
When a comprehensive research university operates a K-12 laboratory school on its flagship campus and there’s a 750,000-strong workforce gap for cybersecurity professionals in the U.S., graduate students and high school students come together for some unusual approaches to learning—and tastes.
It’s Wednesday morning and AP Computer Science class is underway at the University Lab School. At one end of the classroom, LSU graduate students are setting up a presentation to explain hashing algorithms, which are used to disguise passwords in computer memory. At the other end, a blender whirrs with frozen berries and mango.
“We’re making up recipes that are like passwords,” said Olivia Sterling, a University Lab School student from Baton Rouge. “Then we taste the smoothies and try to guess each other’s ‘password.’”
Sterling already speaks four languages: English, French, Spanish and Mandarin. She’s now also learning how to speak cybersecurity, using terms like “abstraction,” which is part of today’s lesson plan. When computer users enter a password, they don’t necessarily know how the computer recognizes a correct from incorrect password, or where this knowledge is stored—that technical detail is an abstraction, which malicious hackers can exploit to steal passwords. Similarly, Sterling makes sure no one from the other team is looking when her team selects their preferred mix of fruit and jots down their secret recipe on a piece of paper, which goes into a classmate’s pocket.
“I never considered cybersecurity for college or as a career prior to this class. As a matter of fact, computer science was the last thing on my list,” Sterling said. “Now, I’m intrigued. I enjoy going to this class weekly because I know it will be a fun hour. Honestly, it keeps me going throughout the week.”
Next, it’s time to guess the recipes, or passwords.
“One cup of mixed berries?”
“None at all?”
“There were two.”
While the teams would have had an easy time guessing the recipes if the fruit had remained whole, the blender, like a hashing algorithm, makes the game a good bit harder.
“Three cups of strawberries.”
“No. One and a half.”
The ultimate lesson here, of course, is that passwords are a lot harder to crack if they contain a lot of different and surprising ingredients—including salt—and are hashed.
The smoothie guessing game was developed as a cybersecurity lesson by LSU graduate students as part of a new course this fall semester, called Cyber for Good. Taught by Ibrahim “Abe” Baggili, professor in the division of computer science and engineering in the LSU College of Engineering, the class is based on cybersecurity first principles established by the National Security Agency. Baggili and LSU graduate students are developing hands-on activities around these first principles, including interactive escape rooms and hands-on lockpicking.
At the end of the semester, all of the lesson plans will be open-sourced. This means the cybersecurity learning activities will be made publicly available, for free, to serve as a model for other schools looking to integrate cybersecurity into their curricula.
LaSean Salmon from Metairie, Louisiana, is an LSU cybersecurity student supported by the National Science Foundation’s Scholarship for Service program who chose to take Cyber for Good this semester to give others a chance to engage with cybersecurity before college—a chance she herself did not get.
“I wasn’t exposed to cybersecurity until I came to LSU, while it would have been cool to learn about it in high school,” said Salmon, who was one of the first students to celebrate LSU’s prestigious designation by the National Security Agency as a Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations last year. “I’m glad these students get that chance, and to me, it’s really rewarding to help them learn hard concepts in a field I’m so passionate about.”
Salmon is now developing detailed lessons plans to teach advanced topics like mobile forensics and network security to the high schoolers later this semester.
“It’s such a fun opportunity to teach what you love to younger minds and flesh out some really difficult concepts,” Salmon said.
The collaboration between LSU and the University Laboratory School would not have been possible without the full support of ULS Instructor of IB Physics, Robotics and AP Computer Science Brian Simpson and ULS Director Kevin George.
“This unique opportunity represents what is possible when collaboration is the norm among colleagues,” George said. “It furthers our mission to serve as a demonstration space and to be a beacon of innovation in education.”
“What we’re doing here is grasping the potential inherent in direct collaboration with the lab school on our campus,” Baggili said. “The initiative also aligns seamlessly with the strategic institutional drive, led by President Tate, to establish cybersecurity as a central pillar within LSU to cultivate a robust pipeline of cybersecurity experts to meet a pressing national demand.”
LSU College of Human Sciences & Education Dean Roland Mitchell appreciates the collaborative nature of the course.
“LSU students are so fortunate to have not one, but two living/learning laboratories right here on our campus—the University Laboratory School and the Early Childhood Education Laboratory Preschool,” Mitchell said. “It’s such an awesome, symbiotic relationship where our birth-to-grade-twelve students can have exceptional growth, learning and developmental experiences provided by our flagship researchers and their students, while simultaneously enriching the scholarship and research prowess for LSU students.”
Sterling enjoys having college students in the classroom.
“It’s very different, in a good way,” Sterling said. “It makes the classroom environment more easy-going and relaxed.”
About the University Laboratory School
The University Laboratory School was established by the LSU College of Education, now known as the LSU College of Human Sciences & Education, and has operated under its auspices for nearly 100 years. This coeducational school exists as an independent system to provide training opportunities for pre- and in-service teachers and to serve as a demonstration and educational research center. The school is located on the main campus of LSU in Baton Rouge.
The College of Human Sciences & Education (CHSE) is a nationally accredited division of LSU. The college is comprised of the School of Education, the School of Information Studies, the School of Kinesiology, the School of Leadership & Human Resource Development, the School of Social Work and the University Laboratory School. These combined schools offer eight undergraduate degree programs, 18 graduate programs, and seven online graduate degree and certificate programs, enrolling more than 1,900 undergraduate and 1,120 graduate students. The college is committed to achieving the highest standards in teaching, research and service and is committed to improving quality of life across the lifespan.