COUNCIL BLUFFS — Students learn algebra in school because simple calculations in everyday life require such skills. But it is just one of many academic subjects important to understanding the modern world.

As reliance on technology grows, schools in Iowa are looking at how to make programming as critical a component of an education as algebra.

Anthony Kava said computer skills — specifically those that address cybersecurity, or how to keep computer systems safe from intruders and attacks — are “practically a life skill.”

“We’re constantly connected to a global network that can be both helpful and dangerous,” he said. “We want to share certain information online, but we need to understand information security in order to keep our private data private.”

Kava is the information technology supervisor and information security officer for Pottawattamie County’s government, as well as a special deputy with the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office. For the Sheriff’s Office, he works on digital forensics and is assigned to the Iowa Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Since October, Kava has been sharing that insight weekly with a group of students at Kirn Middle School participating in the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot program, which teaches the students how to secure computers in realistic environments. Ultimately they can participate in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition.

On a recent Thursday, students at the Kirn after-school club — part of the CB DREAMS program funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers federal grant — were preparing for the competition. They were tapping into simulated computers, “virtual machines” with preprogrammed security flaws, on their school-issued Chromebooks.

Aidan Morgan, an eighth-grader, showed how he had identified five of 24 security vulnerabilities built into the simulated environment. He said he plans to go to college to study information assurance after graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School.

Kirn and Wilson Middle School in the Bluffs are among 460 middle schools in the national competition that involves a total of 3,379 schools. A number of Omaha-area high schools are participating, including Omaha North and South, Creighton Prep, Bellevue East and West, and Plattsmouth.

Teacher Deb Hernandez hopes to keep growing the Kirn club, and Kava said he hopes to see the attention on cybersecurity spread to other schools as well.

The hands-on experience allows the Kirn students to learn from doing instead of just from reading online resources.

Eighth-grader John Amdor said he has been interested in computers since he first installed a mod — a software modification, to improve gameplay or graphics or other aspects of a computer program — while playing Minecraft as an elementary student.

As he talked, John worked on a patch on his Ubuntu virtual system, a common build of the free operating system Linux, and the sound of success — a snippet from the Super Mario games — played to indicate he found one of the security flaws.

“It’s fun,” John said.

Liam Reardon, a seventh-grader, was working on a Windows 8 machine, and he said all of the systems the Kirn students were using were different. He said they were practicing on essentially the same platform they would face in the competition, where they would have up to six hours to find and fix as many of the problems as possible.

Kava said the CyberPatriot program gives students a chance to explore a potential career area and gives them skills to protect themselves in the digital world.

“The students’ enthusiasm and how they seem to soak up complex knowledge so quickly has made the experience extremely rewarding,” he said.

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