RINER — On a large screen facing a computer lab classroom at Auburn Middle School on Tuesday morning were two rows, one of which shows letters in alphabetical order.

Just below the rows were arrangements of letters that appear to be randomly placed.

Jay Mathis, however, had already explained to the children behind several computers that the letters below the rows were in fact an encrypted message. The rows themselves were a key, or a tool needed for decrypting the message.

The rows and the encrypted message form what is called a shift cipher, several of which Mathis instructed students to practice on Tuesday.

One of the ciphers, for example, was a quote from poet Ogden Nash: “Happiness is having a scratch for every itch.”

The exercise was among the activities that took place at Auburn Middle this week as part of Montgomery County Public Schools’ first-ever series of cybersecurity camps.

The shift ciphers are intended to provide the students with an elementary concept of how encryption works, said Mathis, a cybersecurity teacher at Blacksburg High School.

Mathis explained to the students that encryption has ancient roots. Part of the exercise involved the showing of a video about encryption that was employed during the time of the Roman empire.

The camps, which will conclude next week at Blacksburg Middle and Christiansburg Middle schools, are part of a recent push by MCPS to increase student interest in cybersecurity, deemed to be one of the fastest growing fields.

The school district’s expansion of its cybersecurity curriculum is also part of an effort to raise interest in technically oriented fields that MCPS officials say don’t always require a four-year college degree.

MCPS currently offers cybersecurity certification in the classroom. Next year, Christiansburg High School students will join their peers at Blacksburg High School in being allowed to earn dual-enrollment credits in cybersecurity from New River Community College.

“It’s fun, I like it,” Stacy Lewis, an upcoming Auburn Middle eighth-grader, said about the camp this week.

Lewis said her favorite part about the camp was learning how to hack — or rework the code — to a game that one of Mathis’ interns, Cedric Hutchings, developed last summer.

“Because you get to see how the game was made,” she said. “But you can also change the game if you don’t like it.”

Hutchings’ game involves a 3-D character that tries to evade a mob of blue characters.

By hacking, the students were able to reprogram parts of the game and allow for things such as walking through walls, falling through floors and changing the in-game gravity.

“It’s all made by people, so it’s all fragile,” Hutchings, who will be a junior at Blacksburg High, said in reference to one of the lessons the hacking exercise aimed to convey.

Hutchings, who used Javascript to build his game, said it feels more fulfilling to play a game he made himself.

The camp at Auburn Middle this week was a two-day event that took place on Monday and Tuesday.

In addition to the encryption and game hacking exercises, the students got lessons on digital citizenship and ethical behavior, Mathis said. One major focus, he said, was cyberbullying prevention.

Mathis said the students also took some lessons creating strong passwords and dealing with fake emails.

“That’s basic cybersecurity 101,” he said.

The lessons resonated with Lewis.

“It’s something we need to know how to do,” she said.

There are still a limited number of spots left at the Blacksburg Middle School and Christiansburg Middle School camps next week. To sign up, parents need to email Mark Husband at markhusband@mcps.org.

The BMS camp is on June 24 and 25. The CMS camp is on June 26 and 27.

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Yann Ranaivo covers local government and politics in the New River Valley, including Christiansburg, Blacksburg, Radford and Montgomery County.

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