Hands-on cyber security education will become widespread in NSW classrooms next year as the state government kicks off a new curriculum unit based on ‘smart city sandbox’ networks that will be installed in secondary school classrooms across the state.

Jointly developed by the NSW Department of Education, Cyber Security NSW, and industry firms including MCB Business Partners and Core Electronics, the new 10-week course – an open-source module called Cyber City – has been approved as an iSTEM elective subject and maps against the new Foundation to Year 10 Australian curriculum.

Built on the micro:bit mini-computing architecture, each sandbox – which is not connected to the Internet – simulates smart city and critical infrastructure environments by enabling students to build a simulated wireless network of sensors and connected devices.

The Cyber City curriculum guides them through understanding the components of a network, how they interrelate, how security issues emerge, and how they can be fixed.

Students learn how city and rural technology infrastructure works; how to automate routine activities; how to connect hardware devices; how protocols work; how security and privacy can be strengthened with encryption; and more.

Government certification of the program will give it the scale and relevance to integrate cyber education into the schools curriculum early on, Victor Dominello, Minister for Customer Service and Digital Government said in launching the new unit.

“From learning the fundamentals of cyber security and its important impact on day-to-day life to building hardware and gaining hands-on experience with coding, we are preparing our students for future careers in cyber,” he said.

“Whether it is learning how data is sent from one device to another, how cyber technology is used in cities and regions, or understanding the importance cyber security has across different parts of people’s lives – as technology grows and evolves, it is important we give students the skills they need for a digital world.”

Using real-world scenarios around hydroelectric dams, power grids, or satellite communications helps put the importance of cyber security in context for students and helps teachers highlight the fact that 60 per cent of cyber security roles “are not coders”, Minister for Education and Early Learning Sarah Mitchell said.

“This is teaching skills beyond just awareness,” she explained. “Through hands-on learning and simulations, students will build, maintain and automate essential infrastructures…. We want to show our students that cyber security is more than inputting code in a computer.”

Intervention early enough?

The new course comes after weeks in which recent hacks and government responses have kept cyber security issues in the limelight – highlighting both the need to prevent compromise, and the importance of managing issues when they arise.

This awareness may have primed students to engage with programs like Cyber City, which is the latest in a string of initiatives and training courses aiming to showcase cyber’s career possibilities to talented STEM students – who, studies show, switch off from STEM education programs that have often become “little more than amusement”.

The new curriculum also provides materials to help interested teachers brush up on their cyber skills, including a complete learning program; the Cyber City technology kit; video, online and phone support and training; and mentorships with local cyber security professionals where possible.

Directed support for teachers is important, given that many teaching graduates say university education courses offer them little or no preparation for teaching digital and cyber topics.

The shortage of ICT-qualified teachers was a major pain point identified in a major ACS study, Computer Education in Australian Schools 2022: Enabling the Next Generation of IT Professionals, which was released in May and made 55 recommendations around how to improve the teaching of cyber and digital content.

Those include giving secondary computer education teachers at least some formal training in a programming language; requiring states to develop professional learning support programs for teachers; closer collaboration with universities, to name a few.

“There is no single silver bullet that will turn Australia into a global leader in Digital Technologies education,” ACS President Dr Nick Tate said at the time, “but we believe that it’s worth putting everything we can into it.”