Lablet Education and Outreach Activities: Cyber Makerspace, Vanderbilt Digital Nights, CPS Summer Camps
Makerspaces are very popular because they provide a hands-on experience for young learners to experiment with technology. One drawback is that the focus of educational experiences in makerspaces are necessarily on the hardware. Computing aspects, especially more advanced concepts such as cybersecurity, take a back seat. We will team up with Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet School (a public school with 60% minority student population in Nashville) to pilot a cyber makerspace, where students build virtual robots, including advanced sensors and actuators that they would never have access to in a physical makerspace, and the virtual worlds the robots live in. In addition, students will need to implement the desired behavior of the robots to solve challenges including ones related to cybersecurity. The cyber makerspace will make it possible to teach advanced concepts in a practical and hands-on, yet playful manner that will result in high level of engagement and consequently, highly effective learning.
This project builds upon our prior work with NetsBlox, an open source, browser-based visual programming environment and corresponding cloud-infrastructure. NetsBlox integrates distributed programming capabilities at a level accessible for novice programmers through two conceptually simple, yet powerful abstractions: Remote Procedure Calls (RPCs) and message passing. They enable students to create engaging projects such as programs that access online data source and services such as Google Maps, weather data, stock quotes and many more, as well as distributed programs such online multiplayer games or a chatroom.
Networked physical devices can also be accessed using the same abstractions. For example, students get to write programs to remotely control WiFi-enabled robot vehicles in a setting where other students can intercept the wireless commands and hijack each other’s robots. This practice provides the motivation and a physical testbed to teach cybersecurity in a hands-on, practical manner. NetsBlox also enables Google Docs-like collaboration. In this shared synchronous online environment, students can work on a common project from their own computers regardless of their geographic location. This type of collaboration results in rich and diverse opportunities that have been shown to improve the perceptions, confidence and performance of students underrepresented in STEM.
Vanderbilt Digital Nights is a series of free hands-on workshops organized by the CTLI at Vanderbilt where participants will create fun computer programs. The event is targeted at high school students who want to explore what computer science is all about, but interested teachers and parents are also welcome.
The Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) Summer Camps were a 5-day experience for highly-qualified students interested in the growing field of CPS Security. The camps were held at the Vanderbilt University Institute for Software Integrated Systems during the summers of 2016-2021.
The summer cybercamps offered a hands-on curriculum that teaches cybersecurity, programming, and robotics. Students worked in teams utilizing virtual robots in a shared 3D world. Participants created computer programs to control the robots using NetsBlox – a visual block-based programming environment specifically designed to teach distributed programming and computer networking. The NetsBlox environment enables students to disrupt or hijack each other’s robots, allowing them to be both attacker and defender. The camp demonstrated to students the need for various detection and defense mechanisms and spark interest in further studies in cyber-physical systems (CPS) security.