Educating for a Responsible and Innovative Digital Future

By Lisa Chu, Roaming Illustrator-Reporter, ITSPmagazine

I live on the thin strip of coastline just south of San Francisco, separated by only a narrow range of coastal mountains from the heart of Silicon Valley. For students in this area, computer programming and robotics are part of the new compulsory subjects that used to be “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic”. Like volunteering in a community service project, participating in a robotics competition has become commonplace and almost expected of competitive college applicants.

So it’s easy to forget that in many parts of the United States, this kind of early exposure to cutting-edge technology, computer programming, team problem-solving and design challenges is not as easy to come by. Most areas are not teeming with well-funded, global technology companies and the accompanying ecosystem of talent and experience to mentor young people. David Schwartzberg is on a mission to change that, starting in the heart of the American Midwest: Chicago. Schwartzberg is Senior Manager, Security & Privacy, at MobileIron, a Silicon Valley-headquartered company, but he lives in the Chicago area and is Founder of Hak4Kidz, which he describes as the first official youth based ethical hacking conference in Chicago that is not a hackathon. Hak4Kidz is a public charity with 501(c)(3) status.

In its flagship event, an annual conference held each June in Chicago since 2014, there are three types of activities for the attendees who range from age 7 to 17. Guest speakers from the professional ranks of the IT security industry share stories and insights. Activity stations offer the chance for “Tyros” - the Hak4Kidz term for students - to discover things about themselves and their passions. Longer, classroom-style workshops on specialized topics such as pen testing and encryption, enable Tyros to delve deeper into individual subjects that interest them.

STEHM Is The New STEM

Goals of the Hak4Kidz conference experience include exposing youngsters to the mindset of not only science, technology, engineering, and math (“STEM”), but also ethical hacking (hence, “STEHM”). Schwartzberg hopes kids will learn about technology in a way they might not find at home or at school. Hak4Kidz events are designed not as a first exposure to technology but for students already interested and wanting to take their knowledge farther into the practical realm.

When I speak with Schwartzberg recently after hearing his brief introductory talk in the CyberSafety Village at RSAC 2017, I am intrigued by his distinction that Hak4Kidz is not a hackathon. So I ask him what a hackathon is. He explains that while a hackathon is intended for a group of developers to collaboratively write code and solve a problem, Hak4Kidz is a meetup for young programmers seeking both community and mentors for learning and support.

Indeed, Hak4Kidz is a growing community with its own shared language. In addition to the word “Tyro” for students, Schwartzberg and team have coined the terms “Pone” for parents or chaperones, “Leet” for guest speakers, and “Admin” for event volunteers. Schwartzberg sprinkles these throughout our conversation and while at first I have to stop him and ask him to spell them, by the end of the interview I am using the word “Tyro” too.

Since inception, Hak4Kidz has now held fifteen events in such cities as Chicago, Indianapolis, Bloomsburg (Pennsylvania), Milwaukee, New Orleans, Grand Rapids, and Ghent (Belgium). Each event typically involves sixty to eighty Tyros, and seventy to ninety-five Leets and Admins. To date, Schwartzberg says proudly that Hak4Kidz has educated over three hundred kids, from third grade through high school. Hak4Kidz also has hosted private events such as a recent Henry Ford Museum workshop for forty girls. While my ears perk up at this vision of a girls-only event to encourage tech-curious girls to pursue their interests in the field, Schwartzberg is quick to note that none of Hak4Kidz public events would ever exclude anyone based on any factor, gender or otherwise.

The key problems in the IT security industry, says Schwartzberg, are a huge influx of new users of technology with little knowledge of how it works, increasing numbers of victims of cybercrime, and the projected shortage of qualified professionals to fill positions in the industry. Hak4Kidz hopes to address each of these issues in its own small way, by teaching kids how technology works, integrating a Safe & Secure Online presentation on ethics and cybersafety into each conference, and providing mentorship and direction for further study. Schwartzberg hopes these events may spark enough interest in some Tyros to become future IT security professionals, citing his own path from former tech hobbyist to current industry professional.

Since hacking is being elevated to the level of science, technology, engineering, and math, I want to know how Schwartzberg defines “hacking”. First of all, he says, he wants kids to walk away knowing that a hacker is not automatically a criminal. In the original, late 1960s definition of hacking, Schwartzberg explains, the word referred to the process of “making something better by trying something over and over with minor changes to see how its behavior changes.”

And what does “ethical” mean? Three aspects come to mind for Schwartzberg: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Take the high road, don’t fan the flames [referring to cyberbullying]. And if you find something broken, practice responsible disclosure.”

Can ethics be taught? I ask. “It’s a tough one,” Schwartzberg acknowledges. “There are moments when emotions still take over, but hopefully with repetition we can help the kids develop better instincts.”

Hak4Kidz is still young but definitely growing. As Schwartzberg looks ahead, the development of more online community tools, to help Tyros stay in touch between conferences and provide more access to mentorship from Admins and Leets, is a priority on the horizon.

As the number of events grows, Schwartzberg emphasizes one of the signature aspects of his Admin volunteer training program: high standards of child and adult protection, based on the standards of the Boy Scouts of America program Schwartzberg himself is also trained in. He says, “You can quote me on this: We never want anyone to have their lives changed in a way we did not intend.” Security and safety are priorities at all Hak4Kidz events.

Corporate sponsors and individual donors also make a big difference in enabling Hak4Kidz to produce their events, as ticket sales do not cover their full costs.

From the Mouths of Babes

After hanging up the phone and reviewing my notes from our interview, I realize that I want to hear directly from at least one of the Tyros who have attended Hak4Kidz events. I ask Schwartzberg if it’s possible, and within a few hours, he has connected me with Arlene, mother to son Tyler, age 12, and daughter Madison, age 13, who all live in the Chicago suburbs. I grew up in one of these suburbs, and my alma mater was a rival school to the one Tyler and Madison attend.

They are able to fit in a quick phone call on a busy school night, but as soon as I hear their voices, I can feel the excitement. I want to know how they became interested in Hak4Kidz and what they have gotten out of it. Tyler is eager to tell me Hak4Kidz is “a lot of fun”, with his favorite workshop having taught him how to pick a lock. He also learned game design, robotics, and particularly enjoyed Capture The Flag, which he describes as “like a huge puzzle where each stage leads to the next step of the problem to be solved.” Both he and his sister have attended every Hak4Kidz event since 2014, when they first heard about it during a school assembly. In Tyler’s own words, the event is about “safe uses of technology and ethical hacking.”

Madison’s excitement about Hak4Kidz is based on how different it is from her school learning. How different? I asked. “More of a team than a teacher-student approach,” she answers. “More open and allowing all kinds of questions. I get to work with peers of all levels, and everyone can contribute and help each other out.”

“It was sharing knowledge,” says Madison, “but not just one person’s knowledge.”

That the collaborative, open atmosphere is such a stark contrast to her school classroom experience is a bit of a surprise, until I recall my own Midwestern upbringing. Having been in California, breathing the air of Silicon Valley for a decade and a half now, I easily take for granted the atmosphere of unbridled innovation, and open exchange of any and all new ideas. I imagine the Midwest has progressed since I left, but still remains more traditional than Silicon Valley. This culture shift, though, is part of the necessary shift we are all facing as we move (or are being moved) toward “One World”, as our digital and real-life experiences merge into one reality. Giving kids a taste of this kind of open, collaborative learning - even for just one day a year - could be the spark that ignites their curiosity and shows them the possibility of becoming an innovator themselves someday.

Among the favorite Leets (guest speakers) that Tyler and Madison mention are two kids who started their own tech companies at age 9 and age 16, respectively. Seeing these kids in person helped them relate to the possibility of being in the tech industry, and made it “easy for us to connect and engage.”

While both Tyler and Madison were interested in tech before attending a Hak4Kidz event, they both say they are “even more interested” in continuing on the tech path now.

Tyler noted, “I always liked computer science, and I’m a big gamer. But what I also liked was that it wasn’t just tech, but also lock picking [something hands-on and physical].”

Their mom, Arlene, added that she was able to sit through some classes and was impressed with what they were teaching kids as young as fourth and fifth grade. “I like it because it’s a different format to learn technology and more applicable to everyday life.”

I ask both Madison and Tyler to share something they would like other kids to know about Hak4Kidz. Tyler, who seems to have an endless fount of enthusiasm for Hak4Kidz, immediately says, “Go do it! It’s only a day. It’s fun but does put your mind at work. It’s not just mindless tasks, but really challenging.”

Madison adds, “You don’t have to commit for a long period, which is nice. It’s different, new, and overall a really great experience.”

Tyler begins to formulate even more effusive statements about his experience, when Arlene interjects to warn me that he could go on all night if I don’t stop him.

As I close my conversation with Schwartzberg, I wonder out loud what role he sees Hak4Kidz playing in this grand transition to “One World”. After a pause to gather his thoughts, he says, “We’re the education fundamentals. We might help springboard a career. We prepare kids for digital life, show them how to become good online citizens, and teach that the taboo of hacking is artificial.”

Schwartzberg’s message for adults is far-reaching and thought-provoking for parents of children right now. “It’s OK for kids to explore technology and change technology,” he says. “If we hinder them, we’re halting innovation.”

Hak4Kidz is educating not only the next generation of kids, but this generation of parents, too. Learn more and show your support for their mission at http://hak4kidz.com.


About Lisa Chu

Lisa is an artist, illustrator and visual storyteller currently based in Half Moon Bay, California. She was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, and educated at Harvard University (A.B. in Biochemical Sciences) and at University of Michigan Medical School (M.D.). After realizing that medicine was not her passion, and life is too short and too good, she embarked on the adventure of learning new things -- including being a roaming illustrator-reporter for ITSP Magazine.

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