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Why this Forsyth County high school suddenly added cybersecurity classes
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Alliance Academy of Innovation students work during a cybersecurity class on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Cybersecurity wasn’t originally considered for a pathway at Alliance, but the school added it mid-year after growing interest from the community. - photo by Ben Hendren

In a dim white room, its walls ringed by minimalist desks and large-scale displays showing complicated world maps and technical readouts, young people sit working silently, tapping away at wireless keyboards, their faces bathed in the reflection from sets of identical double monitors.

It might look like the computing hub of a technology startup or even the operation center for a covert recognizance operation, but it’s not. It’s a classroom where the next generation of passionate, Alliance Academy for Innovation students have spent the last year learning the foundations of computer and cyber literacy.

Cybersecurity wasn’t originally considered for a pathway at Alliance, according to principal Brandi Cannizzaro. But students, parents and community expressed growing interest in the subject, Cannizzaro said, and it was added as an option.

Now, less than a year into the school’s opening, Cannizzaro said they decided to take that option a step further, making cybersecurity and digital intelligence its own academy within the school, which will cater to different students interested in cybersecurity, coding, game design and computer science.

Cannizzaro said that they were able to build the students a state-of-the-art cybersecurity room with the help of the Forsyth County Schools’ technology department, giving the students everything they’d need to build, create and learn from industry professionals, like their peers in other school academies.

“[The technology department] will be training a lot of their techs that take care of our school system’s network and computers in this same room,” Cannizzaro said. “Our students will have the chance to sit for an end-of-pathway assessment after their third year with us, and some of those same certifications that the people in our technology department, they’ll be taking as well."

"So they really have a leg up," she added.

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Alliance Academy of Innovation students work during a cybersecurity class on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Cybersecurity wasn’t originally considered for a pathway at Alliance, but the school added it mid-year after growing interest from the community. - photo by Ben Hendren

In addition to the partnership with the system’s technology department, Alliance has been working with companies like Amazon, Code.org, IBM, Automation Direct, other local technology organizations for different opportunities and partnerships.

"We'll have a lot of different tech companies coming to see the school, and I think that will build some additional partnerships,” she said.

But the technology and partnerships aren’t the only thing the new academy has to brag about. On Monday, cybersecurity teacher Jennifer Crowder said that so far her students have taken to the subject like a duck to water.

"It’s been really exciting, a lot of students came in knowing how to use a computer but not really having an idea about what cybersecurity was, but the interest has been overwhelming,” Crowder said. "So they are natural inquisitive minds in the way that they are out there looking for things on the internet. When they start to apply those things to solving cyber and security issues, it's just like another game and they go crazy with it."

Alliance Academy sophomore Anthony Mattera said that until he started taking classes with Crowder, he had been interested in computers but never really knew much about how they worked.

Mattera said that the classes allowed him to realize his passion and pursue it, even outside the classroom.

"I absolutely love this class,” Mattera said. “I basically spend all day learning here, and then I try to do new stuff at home and try to bring it back here so I can be better. I've always wanted to do this."

In the new academy, Crowder said that students like Mattera advance through varying levels of courses, from real-world problem solving and higher-thinking skills, working with hardware, software and different operating systems to higher-level computing skills, digging deeper into operating systems, how to secure those systems and how to build or simulate virtual networks. 

Crowder said she is impressed by how inventive her students are and how quickly they grasp the tasks that she gives them.

"I don't think that I thought that they would grasp it to this level,” Crowder said. “Even at the very beginning, we have an introduction to digital technology class, and those students are mostly freshmen, and it's very broad ... But when they start doing any of the cyber challenges, they are just all in. It's been quite amazing."

Even though she’s only working with freshmen and sophomores, she said that they have probably already surpassed what students learn in college computer classes. 

"We're building prior knowledge, like students who start out in kindergarten learning how to read and write – well, this is what they are building here, and a lot of professionals don’t even get exposed to that until they start college," she said. "I'm really excited to see what types of professionals develop from this early exposure."

To test these newly-learned skills, students in the cybersecurity and digital intelligence academy have also begun competing in a variety of different “cyber competitions” and according to Crowder, they have done surprisingly well.

"It's a competitive league nationwide and our students did fantastic,” Crowder said. “We had a team that placed platinum, which is in the top 30 percent in the nation, their first year doing any kind of cybersecurity. So they've excelled. Then we also had three teams that went to the semi-finals for the state."

Mattera, who was one of the students on the team that placed platinum, said that they owe the victory to the passion that has been inspired in them and the hard work they have put in.

"Most people don’t even get to platinum league when they're in their senior year, so the fact that we were able to, we had to put in a lot of effort to do it," he said. "I love doing all of this stuff and so did the rest of my team. That's the reason we got as far as we did; we never stopped enjoying it.”