Hands-on learning was in full effect last week as the first-ever ‘looCon IT Day was held at the Waterloo Career Center on March 7. Over 230 students from 29 Iowa school districts convened at the center to explore the emerging field of cybersecurity and learn what it takes to be a computer science and cybersecurity professional in today’s world.

A panel of Cedar Valley cybersecurity experts kicked off the day’s events and provided valuable real-world information to students. The six-person panel included Autumn Hurley from RSM, Nick Dideriksen from VGMForbin, Brandon Blankenship from ProCircular, Samantha Dahlby from NewBoCo, Tyler Coan from First Security State Bank and Todd Burzynski from UnityPoint. Students asked questions ranging from the day-to-day duties of a cybersecurity professional to what skills are needed to be successful in the field.

Jack Lindaman
Jack Lindaman

“I was definitely looking forward to the panel discussion the most,” said 18-year-old Waterloo senior Jack Lindaman. “I want to go into the cybersecurity field, so I wanted to hear how they got into their own positions. You could ask them anything you wanted to get a better understanding of what they do and what they needed to get there.”

Along with various industry professionals, students also had opportunities to connect with other high schoolers interested in computer science, which was a bonus for many participants.

Christian Cole
Christian Cole

“Meeting other people from other schools was the best thing,” said 17-year-old Waterloo senior Christian Cole. “It’s good to hear other people’s experiences, and I learned things from them, too.”

The second half of the day engaged students in a Capture the Flag-style cybersecurity competition. Teams of three to five students were tasked with completing different online puzzles, which earned them points for each question. Although students from different skill levels were in attendance for ‘looCon IT Day, the puzzles were specifically aimed at beginner-level cybersecurity students.

Kyle Kuhlers
Kyle Kuhlers

“We targeted a beginner-level student because we really wanted to capture the interest of new students and spark their curiosity in cybersecurity,” said Kyle Kuhlers, Waterloo computer science and cybersecurity teacher. “Students could choose from 30 different puzzles to work on as a team. We wanted the cybersecurity competition to be welcoming to the newcomers and encourage working together to solve the problem.”

Events like ‘looCon IT Day help address the growing need for a strong cybersecurity and computer science workforce in Iowa and provide an introduction for students to the field. Cybersecurity has quickly become an important area of education as technology continues to advance and impact everyone’s daily lives and the need for protection continues to grow.

“As long as there are humans and computers, we’ll need cybersecurity,” Kuhlers said. “Computer science is everywhere now, from agriculture to automotive to business, and we need to be able to keep in front of it with strong cybersecurity education and training.”

Offering opportunities to explore and develop skills in the field of cybersecurity is one of the examples of how Iowa schools are providing high-quality computer science at all levels. Through legislation established in 2020, all accredited Iowa high schools must offer at least one computer science course, such as cybersecurity, to their students. Elementary and middle schools must also offer a computer science class in at least one grade as well.

“Iowa schools have been working hard to implement quality computer science opportunities for their students,” said Justin Lewis, bureau chief for the Governor’s STEM Council at the Iowa Department of Education. “Through these efforts, Iowa is one of the top ten states in the nation for providing high-quality computer science education.”

In addition to supporting the computer science requirement,  the Waterloo Career Center’s cybersecurity strand is also a STEM BEST (Business Engaging Students and Teachers) Program model. The STEM BEST Program encourages teachers and industry professionals to design project-based learning models that combine STEM subjects with hands-on learning.

students with looCon IT Day t-shirts

“Experiences like these connect students with opportunities to develop skills that are needed in high-demand, STEM-related careers,” said Tanya Hunt, Department STEM BEST program coordinator. “It exposes them to the possibilities that exist in business and industry and helps create excitement for further learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.”

Kuhlers and the Waterloo Career Center fully believed a day like ‘looCon IT Day was an opportunity to expand their efforts in STEM and computer science and help students build both technical and professional skills.

“We really wanted to build not only cybersecurity skills but also confidence,” Kuhlers said. “During the day, there is also a lot of focus on teamwork, trying new things and interacting with new people. Students have to think outside of the box and work together, all while discovering what cybersecurity is all about.”

looCon IT Day

As a result, ‘looCon IT Day was deemed a huge success. It helped engage students and further strengthened relationships with the community partners.

“We owe a huge thank you to the Docent Institute for creating the puzzles for the competition and to Waterloo Schools Foundation for providing lunch,” Kuhlers said. “We couldn’t have done this event without them.”

For schools looking to enhance their own cybersecurity and computer science programs, Kuhlers recommended that they consider offering a similar competition day in their own districts.

“Just do it,” he said. “Don’t get hung up on the what ifs. Give kids opportunities to explore cybersecurity and computer science. We need them for the future.”