GCU GenCyber camp building a strong network of cyber-savvy teachers

K12 teachers put together a puzzle as part of a network building exercise at the GCU GenCyber Teacher Camp on Tuesday. The puzzle represents a photograph being reassembled before arriving as a text message.

Photos by Ralph Freso

You’ve taken those gorgeous landscape selfies at Yosemite National Park. Now it’s time to text them out into the world.

“Those are some very beautiful pictures we’re sending to grandma,” said Steven Faulkner, technology instructor and coordinator of Grand Canyon University’s Cyber Center of Excellence, on Day 2 of the weeklong GenCyber Teacher Camp.

But instead of hitting send on their phones, the 35 Arizona junior high and high school teachers at the camp jaunt into the hallway through various doors and receive puzzle pieces. Minutes later, they stream back in, one by one, each heading to one of seven tables (or people) representing different routers.

It’s a buzzing, exciting few moments of complete chaos.

“It’s a constant Whac-a-Mole,” says one teacher of the activity, meant to represent what happens to data once you hit send.

At this week's GenCyber Teacher Camp at GCU, K12 teachers do lesson planning, compete in capture the flag and learn exercises they can use back at their schools to teach cybersecurity.

Their goal? To arrive at a designated destination along with other team members and assemble the puzzle pieces, aka grandma’s picture.

But getting to the destination wasn’t a straight line.

Some teachers collided with others, meaning starting your journey over; others receive a tap on the shoulder – bummer – which meant they just encountered a virus, have become corrupted and have to go back and get reassigned a puzzle piece.

Yet despite all this network free-for-all lawlessness, Team 1 emerged victorious. Puzzle/picture assembled. Grandma happy.

Other teams weren’t as lucky.

Various instructors and fellow teachers acting as viruses stole teams’ puzzle pieces.

GCU’s technology faculty designed this network packet building activity to illustrate what happens to data, like a photo in a text message, when you send it.

Data isn’t sent intact.

Paul Dickerson and Sarah Eaves of Scottsdale Christian Academy celebrate their team’s victory in the network packet building exercise during the GenCyber Camp.

Instead, it’s broken into smaller pieces of data called packets. Each packet contains information about where it came from and where it needs to go and goes through a series of interconnected networks called routers. Different packets can go through different routers. The only goal, really, is for data to get to the final destination for reassembly.

It was just one of the activities teachers delved into at the cyber camp, the third such camp the College of Engineering and Technology has hosted alongside university partner K12 Educational Development since receiving its first $100,000 GenCyber grant in 2020, funded through the National Security Agency in collaboration with the National Science Foundation.

GenCyber started in 2014 with eight prototype camps and has grown to include more than 150 similar camps across the nation.

“The purpose is to create awareness for cyber and bring people into the workforce,” said Dr. Pam Rowland, the college’s associate dean.

In addition to the GenCyber grant, used to power the teacher camp, her department just received a $26,300 APS Foundation grant to bring STEM professional development to school districts in the Navajo Nation in the 2024-25 school year.

Such support is vital in helping universities, such as GCU, help fill the cybersecurity pipeline.

Research has shown that the gap between global demand and the cyber workforce capacity in 2023 was estimated at 4 million people, according to a study by ISC2, an association of cybersecurity professionals.

In Arizona alone, almost 10,000 cybersecurity jobs are currently unfilled, according to Cyber Seek’s Cybersecurity Supply/Demand Heat Map. That’s a fraction of the almost 470,000 cybersecurity job openings nationally.

Sophany Tibke of the Chandler Unified School District reacts after being named the GenCyber Camp's superhero teacher of the day .

Without those cybersecurity professionals, businesses and individuals become even more vulnerable to hackers and data breaches. In 2023, the cost of data breaches reached an all-time high, with the average cost globally at $4.45 million, according to the Ponemon Institute.

“If we can provide teachers with information, they can transform that into a lesson plan or sessions they can use in classes, and that’s a win,” said Dwight Farris, GCU cyber/IT faculty lead. “That’s what’s going to decrease the gap as far as skills. … This is what we need.”

Sophany Tibke, a teacher at the Chandler Unified School District’s Technology Innovation Center, said the network packet building activity, “really helped me grasp the idea and the concept of network traffic” and helped her understand that “there’s a lot happening behind the click.” It also made her more thankful for the security measures her school has in place to secure data, “even though, on the user side, we tend to get annoyed.”

It’s an exercise that Tibke, who was dubbed the day’s cyber hero and was awarded a purple cape to wear, is taking back to her school district.

“This is the best PD (personal development workshop) I have ever been to,” said Melanie Gonzalez, a teacher at Edkey Sequoia Charter School in Mesa, who loves how interactive the camp is. “… This (cyber) is something we may not practice daily, so it’s new, it’s exciting. It gives teachers the opportunity to take it back and find ways to engage their students.”

Melanie Gonzalez of Edkey Sequoia Charter School in Mesa plays the role of a virus checker as she scans other K12 faculty during the network packet building exercise.

Gonzalez first took the workshop last year, after an academic counselor at her school took the school's senior students on a GCU tour and heard about the camp. She and her science team trained together at the GenCyber Teacher Camp “so we could incorporate cybersecurity and technology into our gen-ed-type science classes.”

After the camp, her team created a cybersecurity program.

Gonzalez remained connected to GCU’s technology faculty at follow-up sessions and was asked to help out this week as a pedagogical expert.

GCU Cyber Center of Excellence coordinator and instructor Joe Urbaszewski said he gets so much fulfillment from helping teachers get excited about cyber. “I like the feeling that they’re not just learning, but they’re actually collaborating.”

Urbaszewski said he and the technology faculty worked hard to make this GenCyber Camp immersive and interactive. They want to not just get teachers pumped up about teaching but inspire them to think and reflect.

Cyber Center of Excellence Coordinator Joe Urbaszewski plays the role of a home router during the GenCyber Teacher Camp's network packet building exercise.

“We’ve already had some teachers create cyber programs,” he said of educators such as Gonzalez. “… We had another teacher from Tucson who never touched cyber but got a grant. He started building a program and asked us for help. We also have teachers who keep coming back … and they want to bring even more peers.”

Doug Knuth, a teacher at American Leadership Academy’s Applied Technologies campus in Mesa, said he wants to bring his wife, who’s also a teacher, to next year’s GCU GenCyber camp.

Knuth was busy on Tuesday in the Cyber Center of Excellence creating a lesson plan, then switched gears and launched into the camp’s capture-the-flag competition, in which teams find and exploit vulnerabilities in a system to capture a hidden piece of information, or “flag.”

“We are very excited to continue capture the flag and secure our eventual victory over the Cybersharks!” he said loudly to goad the team next to him.

Douglas Knuth, a K12 teacher with the American Leadership Academy's Applied Technologies campus, does lesson planning during the GenCyber Teacher Camp.

“Any chance I have to attend an educational development thing like this is something I’m excited about. Every activity, every guest speaker, every piece of this has been so invaluable and so exciting to me,” he said. “I’m like a kid in a candy store.”

GCU Manager of Internal Communications Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

Related content:

GCU News: National conference’s GenCyber Day makes the circuit at GCU

GCU News: GCU helps teachers boot up their cybersecurity skills

GCU News: Technology Department awarded GenCyber grant

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