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The University recently trained the first cohort of high school teachers as part of its inaugural GenCyber Teacher Academy. Now part of an enduring network of educators, participants will continue to have support from University faculty and their peers as they apply what they’ve learned in their own classrooms.
September 13, 2022
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Robert Piccuillo teaches science and engineering at West Haven High School. Shortly before the school year started, he had the opportunity to further his own education as part of a unique program at the University of New Haven.
Interested in learning more about cybersecurity, Piccuillo was a member of the first cohort of the GenCyber Teacher Academy at the University, the first such program in Connecticut. He is also now exploring a possible master’s degree at the University.
“The idea that, in 2022, hackers have so much ability to wreak havoc on any computer system is very interesting and surprising to me,” he said. “The older I get, the more I seek challenges. I didn’t know much about computers before this, and it sparked my interest.”
Piccuillo was one of more than two dozen local public, private, or charter high school teachers who became the students as part of the weeklong program, during which they learned how to apply cybersecurity concepts in their own classrooms. They were not required to have prior knowledge or experience in cybersecurity or computer science when beginning the program, and they gained both while learning from University faculty with decades of experience.
Funded by the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation, the program was conceived of by Mehdi Mekni, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of the University’s computer science program. He oversaw the program and delivered its content, joined by other University faculty such as Liberty Page, M.S.
“Our team designed, planned, and executed a quality program that combined meaningful and fun professional development activities,” said Dr. Mekni. “The program received a large number of applications in addition to a growing interest expressed by teachers in the New England region. Our goal now is to examine the valuable feedback and helpful recommendations we received from our participants and the funding agencies to enhance the GenCyber Teacher Academy.”
When Mary Lynne Rucker, who teaches information technology at Eli Whitney Technical High School in Hamden, Conn., first heard about GenCyber Teacher Academy, she was so intrigued she drove to the University after work and left a note on a door saying she wanted to be a part of it. She is excited to share what she’s learned in the classroom with her students – two of whom attended the University’s GenCyber Agent Academy, a weeklong cybersecurity program offered to high school students each summer.
“This is an area I’ve been interested in, and I learned so much at the academy,” said Rucker. “Most of it was new to me, especially the networking piece. I hope to be involved with the University more – I hope to work with some of the students, perhaps the Ph.D. students, who want to get involved with our high school students. I also hope to bring my students to the University and to show them the campus, as I think it would be a great fit for them.”
The program, offered free of charge, included lectures, lesson plan design, labs, and games. It was designed to be hands-on and engaging for teachers, particularly those in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). They also received resources – including lesson plans and a Chromebook with curriculum resources – that they could take back to their classroom.
Covering topics such as Python, network fundamentals, and social engineering, the GenCyber Teacher Academy applied culturally responsive teaching to cybersecurity education. The hope was that the program would help meet the increasing need for highly skilled cybersecurity professionals who are necessary for the protection of the nation.
Christopher Kerr, who teaches computer science and game development at Newington High School, says the academy provided a chance for him to further develop his skills and gain valuable tools he can bring with him to the classroom.
“This was an opportunity to fill in the gaps in our knowledge and keep us up to date,” he said. “Everyone has a weakness in one place, and it’s important to recognize that. I hope to understand students’ need for digital literacy – how they can protect themselves, be smart about data, and be digital advocates.”
While program participants are now back in their own classrooms, they remain connected to their fellow educators and program instructors. The academy includes post-academy activities that are offered online, building a GenCyber Teaching-Learning Community. Teachers and instructors meet for follow-up sessions, and educators share what has been successful in the classroom as well as the challenges they have faced. They will continue to have a support network as they apply what they have learned with their students.
For Joel Padilla, who recently began a new role as a technology integrator at EF Academy in Thornwood, New York, the opportunities to connect and learn from other educators and professionals in the cybersecurity and STEM fields are critical. It was his students who initially sparked his interest in cybersecurity when they asked for his help in starting a cybersecurity club, and he learned about it along with them.
“The faculty at the University have been great,” he said. “Their knowledge and the university-level academics helped us learn and ask in-depth questions. Networking opportunities with likeminded people in education are invaluable. The future opportunities to reach out to the network of faculty and educators are so important.”
That networking base is expected to increase each year. Dr. Mekni plans to offer GenCyber Teacher Academy every summer, and each year it will bring in a new cohort of educators.
For Piccuillo, the West Haven High School science and engineering teacher, the program also presents an opportunity to foster another of his passions: promoting diversity in engineering. He helped start a women in engineering club at the school, and he hopes to continue to support more students from underrepresented groups – including students who identify as female – and encourage them to pursue careers in engineering.
“Many of my female students are among my top students,” he said. “I want to show my students the many opportunities that are available.”
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