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Brown CS PhD Student Skyler Austen Transforms His Cybersecurity Passion Into An Educational Hackathon For Younger Students

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For first-year PhD student Skyler Austen, cybersecurity education is the focus of his work with Brown CS under faculty member Kathi Fisler. Skyler took his research and, for the last few months, worked with a high school teacher from his home state of Arkansas, James Houston, to host a statewide hackathon for middle school students at the beginning of April.

Skyler attended the University of Central Arkansas for his undergraduate degree and his passion for planning small hackathons at various schools throughout the state began with his undergraduate thesis. He previously partnered with James Houston to organize a competition with middle school students that became part of Houston’s after-school program, which garnered great reception.

From this point forward, they scaled the project up to include 15 middle schools and approximately 500 students, from urban cities to rural communities all throughout the state of Arkansas. The top 8 teams from this competition, which consisted of 40 students, then competed at the Arkansas State Capitol building for a final round of competition during a full legislative session. In addition to learning more about cybersecurity and competing against their fellow students, many of the kids also had the opportunity to meet state representatives and senators from their legislative districts.

James Houston also worked on summer curriculum development for the state government in the realm of cybersecurity. Houston’s connections in the government motivated him and Skyler to hold the final round in the Capitol Building.

“I think my favorite part of the whole event was seeing the kids learning and having fun with the activities, but also the opportunity for several of them to meet their representatives and senators,” Skyler says. “I was really lucky to work with Mr. Houston. The legislators got the chance to explain what they were doing and who they were, so that was awesome for the kids.”

Skyler’s competition was different from the typical hackathon. He themed the project around public utilities cybersecurity and divided it into three phases where the students were required to “save” a different utility system within Arkansas: the gas system, water system, and electric grid. The competition itself was built of a variety of cryptography puzzles, ciphers, and hacking challenges, including a reverse engineering challenge brought in by the State Education Department that was particularly exciting for the kids.  

“We even had a big 3D print model with live updates,” Skyler adds. “Whenever the students finished each activity, a part of the model would light up, so we had fans for the gas system, a water pump, and even a place for the electric grid to turn on.”

Sklyer says that he first became involved in cybersecurity because of the help of a “very nice college student” named Dylan Hailey. Dylan started a cybersecurity club at Skyler’s high school and formed a team to go to competitions, both locally and hosted online across the world. 

“I made a lot of friends doing these competitions and learned a ton about cybersecurity, and this is what really piqued my interest in the field,” Skyler says. “That inspired me in college to try and recreate some of those opportunities for other students and I absolutely love doing it, so it’s something I’ll definitely continue.”

“I think for any university student, finding ways to work with younger students and to give back to your local community is incredibly rewarding and a ton of fun,” Skyler says.

For more information, click the following link to contact Brown CS Communications Manager Jesse C. Polhemus.