By Mike Marsee
In a classroom at Kentucky School for the Deaf this summer, a group of students was trying out a computer chat room – one they built from scratch.
Their work was part of a cybersecurity camp for deaf and hard-of-hearing students that came to KSD for the first time in July. Staff members from the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB) teamed up to bring the camp to the Danville campus.
One of the missions of the six-day camp was to expose students to careers in cybersecurity and related fields in which they might take an interest.
“The camp is valuable because it’s giving these students experience in a profession where people are needed,” said Lee Alan Roher, a mathematics teacher at KSD who assisted with the camp.
Jesse Hairston, a research scientist at UAH who served as the camp director, said all students can benefit from what they learn at the camp.
“We teach them about cybersecurity careers and the different paths they can go down if they want to pursue that career,” Hairston said. “But even if they decide not to go into cybersecurity, they can still take the knowledge they learn here at camp and apply that to any career field.”
The camp was funded by GenCyber, which holds about 150 cybercamps across the nation for teachers and public school students thanks to sponsorship from the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency.
Two of those camps were held exclusively for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Kentucky was the only state in the Southeast that had never had a GenCyber camp. Hairston said holding a camp at KSD extended the outreach efforts of both GenCyber and AIDB.
The camp attracted 15 students from across Kentucky, 11 of which are KSD students.
“In our last camp for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Alabama we had 25 students from different states, so to have 15 from one state alone is a very good turnout,” Hairston said.
KSD Principal Toyah Robey said she expects even more to attend next year if the camp returns.
“Our kids love to be on this campus, and they love the camps we offer during the summer,” Robey said. “I can guarantee you our kids will go back and tell more kids, and if we’re fortunate enough to host this camp next year, our numbers will grow.”
Robey said it’s important to ensure that deaf and hard-of-hearing students have the same opportunity to learn technical skills as all other students.
“Just like in other districts across the Commonwealth, it’s essential our students have opportunities to pursue a career path of their choice through rigorous instruction and a system of supports,” she said. “There are very few professions that our students can’t pursue because they are deaf or hard of hearing. Over half of our students transition to college with others opting into a technical field. This camp has been a wonderful and valuable experience for our students to see firsthand about cybersecurity as a cutting-edge and innovative career opportunity.”
She said the camp came to KSD at a good time, as the school is looking for ways to increase STEM opportunities in its course offerings.
“When Jesse and his people approached us about this, we thought this was ideal,” Robey said. “I had high expectations, and it has far exceeded them. It’s been a great week.”
Hairston and his staff worked with AIDB staff members to reach their deaf and hard-of-hearing audience, just as they did at camps held in Alabama in each of the past two years.
“We brought the cyber, they brought the expertise on taking care of deaf and hard-of-hearing students and pro tips on teaching them in a more visual way that they can better understand,” Hairston said.
Kevin Cronin of AIDB said staff members from the school also provide the students with things to do after the camp wraps up each day.
“We provide field trips, we go bowling, we go to the movies, we provide overnight dorm staff and we have interpreters,” Cronin said.
The camp required no prior knowledge in cybersecurity and only a basic understanding of computers for students to be able to participate. The students constructed their chat room by writing the code on Raspberry Pi computers that are about the size of a credit card and that they could take home with them at the end of the week.
Other activities included team-building exercises such as a Wi-Fi scavenger hunt, as well as work on three-dimensional printing and programming drones.
“They were all excited to see the drone fly based on what they typed in,” Roher said.
The week concluded with a competitive challenge in which participants could apply all of the knowledge they picked up during the camp.
Several KSD staff members were involved with the camp in areas ranging from transportation for off-campus activities to making sure the school’s network was ready for what the students would be doing. However, Robey said it was wonderful to have so much of the work done by the UAH and AIDB staffers, and she said she was impressed by their preparation and their professionalism.
“To me, they’re like a band,” she said. “They came in with their roadies and they were ready to go. It’s kind of like having the Rolling Stones here. It’s been wonderful experience for us.
“It’s been an honor for it to be offered here. They afforded us something that we could not afford to do and that we truly didn’t have the resources to do. This partnership has been a tremendous resource for our kids and our staff.”
Hairston said the camps are dependent upon grant funding that must be renewed annually, but he said he’d love to bring a camp back to KSD next summer.
“We hope that the program grows and stretches out to other areas, but at the same time we definitely have an interest in coming back next year,” he said.
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