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Overcoming apathy towards school computing – with spies, murder and cyber terrorism

Gillian Spragg, a maths teacher at Stockport School in northwest England, tells us about three girls’ triumph in the inaugural UK Cyber Games at the University of Warwick

I set up a cipher and coding club last year on the back of a school trip to Bletchley Park. Listening to stories of Second World War spies and Enigma machines, the students were hooked on the idea of code-breaking.

The fascination with spying and secrecy quickly gave way to a hunger for logic puzzles – the students love spotting patterns in numbers. Moving this forward to the computing side of things, using algorithms to go through a cipher and starting to think about cyber security, was a natural next step.

Hence, we decided to take part in the Cyber Games.  Here, teams were confronted with a ‘murdered body’ and had to identify the culprit through cyber clues scattered throughout the building. Each challenge required high levels of ingenuity and the ability to read and apply coding skills to a wealth of scenarios.

These started with gathering and analysing forensic details, and continued with exercises such as using digital forensics to identify threats to a fictional Olympics-style opening ceremony. There was a challenge from Lancaster University to gain access and disable communication links to a water tank, draining it to reveal a clue. The students were also thrilled to be able to crack codes using a genuine Bletchley Park enigma machine.

Finally, the students had to overcome an against-the-clock challenge to reveal the murderer’s identity – and three of our Year 9 girls (aged around 14) became the first-ever UK Schools Cyber Security Champions. Prizes included Raspberry Pi computers, Lego Mindstorms kits and £1,000 towards the coding and cipher club. 

Our teams have really had their eyes opened to career options in this area. These students are at the top end of the ability group, so naturally, despite their young ages, they’re already thinking about what they need to do when they leave us. Industry representatives at the Cyber Games said that apprenticeships could be done at the same time as core university degrees.

The games, part of the government-backed Cyber Security Challenge’s programme for schools, have really put coding in a new light. When the new computing curriculum starts in September, I’m sure we’ll see even more students looking to join in with this initiative.

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