University Boils Cybersecurity Concepts Down to Learning Game

The University of Texas at San Antonio is working with elementary school educators to nurture an early interest in cybersecurity, starting with a simple card game.

Deck of custom game cards.
The University of Texas at San Antonio Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security recently developed Cyber Threat Protector game to teach young children about basic cybersecurity principles.
University of Texas at San Antonio
Cyberhygiene has become a focal point of concern for parents and educators as children grow up increasingly dependent on technology.

In light of this, the University of Texas at San Antonio Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security recently launched Cyber Threat Protector, a tabletop card game designed to introduce cybersecurity safety principles to children as young as 8 years old.

The game, launched in August 2020, is part of the university’s K-12 Cybersecurity Program, which began in 2016 with Cyber Threat Defender, a collectible card game developed primarily for students in middle and high schools. That game is now played throughout the United States and 17 countries at no cost to educators through sponsorships to the university.

The success of Cyber Threat Defender, loosely modeled after games like Magic: The Gathering, led the university to develop a simplified version for elementary school students.

Julina Macy, the center’s communications coordinator who helps lead its gaming initiatives, says it’s essential to teach children how to stay safe online using simple tools. She pointed out that children are now being introduced to the Internet as toddlers, making them vulnerable to a plethora of cyberthreats.

“It’s important to integrate these concepts at a young age, and doing it in a fun way with a hands-on game like Cyber Threat Protector is a great way to help them learn these concepts while having fun at the same time,” Macy said, adding that the university also plans to develop similar games for younger students.

Hatchett Elementary School instructor Robert Burleson was one of several teachers in San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District who suggested a game geared toward younger students after beta testing Cyber Threat Defender in his fourth- and fifth-grade afterschool enrichment club.

He worked with Macy last year to pilot the learning game, which has fewer words per card as well as modifications to the rules that make it faster to play and more accessible and inclusive for elementary students. 

“The response from students using Cyber Threat Defender was mixed. They really enjoyed learning about the different components of cybersecurity, but for some students, the readability or sheer amount of explanation per card was overwhelming,” he said. “Students in grades 3-5 are now able to easily play and enjoy the game.”

According to a recent report, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the FBI have received numerous reports about ransomware attacks against public school students continuing their studies remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report noted that cybercriminals have targeted school computer systems, sometimes rendering them inaccessible for the purposes of distance learning.

The FBI identified K-12 education as one of the most targeted public sectors for cyberattacks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says increased online activity also puts children at more risk for online exploitation, cyberbullying and exposure to harmful content.

While these issues are now in the spotlight, Macy said cybersecurity will remain a concern long after most students return from virtual learning.

“Cybersecurity is always important, whether we’re in a pandemic or not, virtual learning or in the classroom,” Macy said. “Anything connected to the Internet makes them vulnerable to potential cyberattacks.”

The overall purpose of the university’s K-12 cybersecurity initiative is to cultivate a “culture of cybersecurity” in an increasingly digitized world. Macy believes encouraging curiosity about cybersecurity could also open new doors for K-12 students later in life.

“There’s such a large cybersecurity gap in the workforce that continues to grow, so if we can also build interest in cybersecurity as a potential career long term, that could help them support themselves as they enter the workforce and support the nation in being more cybersecure,” she said.

Burleson said his partnership with the university has nurtured his students’ interest in cybersecurity and data science. This is one of his goals as head of the school’s Cybersecurity Club.

“Cybersecurity will continue to be an important career field as our society grows even more technology-dependent,” he said. “The partnership we’ve had with CIAS has not only helped spark an interest in students but also provided a way to enjoy learning about cybersecurity.”

Reaching K-12 students through games like Cyber Threat Protector is just one small example of how the university has worked to emphasize cybersecurity — a field many of those students will likely look to for work.

On Monday, the university broke ground on its new $90 million School of Data Science (SDS) and National Security Collaboration Center (NSCC) as part of recent campus expansion efforts. 

The SDS will include classroom and research space for the 6,500 data science students projected to take courses there by 2022. The university’s computer science; computer engineering; statistics and data sciences; and information systems and cybersecurity departments will be housed in the 167,000-square-foot center. The NSCC, which acts as a “hub for government, university and industry partners in the cybersecurity field,” will move into the center from its current main campus location. 

The project was funded through $75 million from the University of Texas System’s Permanent University Fund and a $15 million donation from former Rackspace Founder and CEO Graham Weston. University President Taylor Eighmy said the center will foster collaborative efforts in analytics, network security, cybertraining, artificial intelligence, software integrity and workforce development. He expects the center to attract students considering a career in emerging tech fields. 

“This new transdisciplinary building, which is deeply connected to the economic well-being of San Antonio and will house the first School of Data Science in Texas, will enable UTSA to prepare students for the high tech jobs of the future and to grow its ecosystem of government, industry and academic partners tackling society’s grand security challenges,” he said in an announcement Monday.

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.