From the Bay to the Blue Ridge
Cyber Camp expands Radford’s cyber technology education reach
By Mary Hardbarger
In Lancaster County, Virginia, located in the Northern Neck of the state, its almost 11,000 residents are surrounded by boundless beauty.
Founded in 1651, the historic region is situated between the Rappahannock River to the west and the Chesapeake Bay to the east. Students at Lancaster High School admit they spend a lot of time on the water, when they are not studying in the classroom.
Although rich in culture and heritage, the county is less bountiful of diverse career opportunities and resources, especially in the technology sector — a trend of many rural areas across the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, computer and mathematics occupations rank among the lowest in Lancaster County.
“Rural areas suffer from a chicken and egg problem,” explained Professor of Information Technology Jeff Pittges, Ph.D. “They don’t have enough technology companies to attract people, and they don’t have enough information technology workers to attract companies. Consequently, retaining information technology talent is a major challenge.”
This summer, Pittges, along with faculty, staff and students from across Radford University, collaborated in a new outreach project to address this common disparity and empower young students with the skills and the passion to pursue career paths in cyber technology and bring technical expertise back to their hometowns.
Middle- and high-school-aged students from Floyd, Pulaski and Lancaster counties, as well as the City of Radford, participated in the Cyber Camp in late May and July of 2019. The pilot program, held on Radford University’s campus, was sponsored by the Artis College of Science and Technology.
In May, 70 students from Pulaski and Floyd high schools and Radford City’s John N. Dalton Intermediate School participated in a three-day version of the camp, which was designed as an experiment to gauge students’ interest in and enthusiasm for technology and cybersecurity with the idea that a larger program could be offered in the future, explained David Horton ’90, camp co-organizer and assistant to the dean of the Artis College.
Throughout the week, students were introduced to basic cyber literacy concepts and skillsets, such as circuits, networking, robotics, coding and malware. With guidance from Instructor of Information Technology Freeman Lo, students also learned how to program Arduino robots to perform certain tasks, such as maneuver through mazes and roam autonomously using sensors in the hallways and classrooms of Davis Hall.
Seventh grade life science teacher Beverly Edwards, M.S. ’84 traveled with her Dalton Intermediate School students to the Cyber Camp. As students meticulously programmed their small robots — some spinning and others following pathways mapped out on the ground — Edwards beamed with excitement for her young learners.
“I’m so impressed with what they’re learning and doing. It’s really reinforcing what they’ve learned in class and what they’re going to be learning next year,” she said. “This has been such a fun and educational field trip for these students.”
In July, students from Lancaster High traveled from the Bay to the Blue Ridge for a weeklong, residential version of the Cyber Camp.
Radford University’s connection to Lancaster County comes through Pittges’ relationship with Lancaster County resident Jack Neil of the Verlander Foundation, which provides financial assistance for students to further their education.
“This camp is the first step toward building a pipeline from Lancaster High School to Radford University,” Pittges said. “We need to attack the problem from both ends — increase the supply of technology workers and increase technology jobs. As we fill the talent pipeline, we hope to attract more technology companies and tech jobs to Lancaster County.”
In addition to participating in similar activities as the May campers, the Lancaster County group also heard from cyber experts, including a special investigator, who talked with the students about cyber bullying and cyber predators, and Block.one’s Chief Information Security Officer Eddie Schwartz.
Belle Bean, a rising eighth grader and the youngest Lancaster camper, said she had a lot of fun working with the robots, which involved extensive programming to make the machines move forward and backward, turn and stop.
“I used to dislike programming,” Bean said. “But, with the robots, we are learning how to program for a purpose. We are learning these advanced skills that we can actually put to use.”
Unlike Bean, several of the students said the camp was their first exposure to cyber technology education. The main reason, explained Pittges, is because few educators in Lancaster County Public Schools, and in many other rural localities, have been trained in the subject matter, a challenge he foresees the Cyber Camp helping address in the future.
“We’d eventually like to have teachers attend the camp with the students, and, together, they can take those skills back to their school systems,” Pittges said. “Teachers can train other teachers. Students can share stories about the robots they programed with their friends. It is a win-win for everyone.”
Eager to soak in new knowledge, the campers were equally as excited to explore campus, breathe the fresh mountain air and engage with camp organizers.
“It’s really beautiful here,” said Troy Cox, a rising sophomore at Lancaster High School.
Many students agreed that Radford University may be their future alma mater, because the camp and its organizers impacted them so much.
Witnessing the students’ curiosity and enthusiasm come to life is what made the camp more than worthwhile, Horton said.
“If we can ignite a little spark of interest, we can build a bigger pool of future Highlander students and graduates, who will grow the Commonwealth’s tech talent pipeline,” Horton said. “This camp has really highlighted Radford University’s outstanding commitment to outreach, community partnerships and economic growth, and we look forward to hosting a new batch of students next year.”