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They Grow Up So Fast! Why Kids Are Learning To Think Like Tech CEOs Under Cyber Attack

In NOVA Labs’s new game, middle schoolers defend a range of companies, including SnapCat and Einstegram.

Today marks the start of Cyber Security Awareness month (totally a thing), and apparently it’s never too early to prepare tomorrow’s CEOs for data breaches and cyber attacks. NOVA Labs, the digital companion to the PBS show NOVA, has created a free, web-based game for middle schoolers to learn about the dangers lurking online. Kids take on the role of defending their tech company–SnapCat, Einstegram, WattsApp, or Phasebook–from hackers. If they succeed, they grow their user base and earn coins that look an awful lot like bitcoins.

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Alex Rosenthal, digital content producer at NOVA Labs and the game’s primary developer, says the project is designed to make students more conscious citizens of the Internet. Kids learn practical skills, like how to create hard-to-crack passwords, back up files, and prevent phishing. They can also pick up coding basics. “Coding is the new literacy,” he says. “But we didn’t introduce coding by teaching JavaScript. It’s about understanding the concept and the building blocks of coding.”


NOVA Labs is working with middle schools across the country to introduce the game into the curriculum. There is currently a large unmet demand for cyber security experts, and this effort seeks to make the highly technical field accessible to kids as early as possible. “Women and minorities, in particular, are underrepresented in these fields,” says Rosenthal. NOVA Labs made a deliberate effort to bring on female cyber security experts as advisers to inspire girls.

One of those experts, Suzanne Barber, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains that most parents are not equipped to help their kids learn how to be safe online. “Caregivers know to teach children how to protect themselves from strangers when they are alone in the street, but the digital realm is still unfamiliar to most adults who were not raised on the Internet,” she says. “This is a new challenge for them.”

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NOVA Labs is taking the lead in helping to make cutting-edge cyber security tactics accessible to children. “In some cases, kids might even be able to go home and explain these concepts to their parents, who might be in the dark,” says Rosenthal. The short videos NOVA Labs created to offer kids some background into cyber security would be helpful to most adults.

Rosenthal tells me that scientific facts are often taught without any context in the classroom, making it hard for many students to stay engaged or interested. By giving students a narrative and a role in the game, the NOVA team hopes that they will find it easier to remember cyber security concepts. “’Gamification’ is sometimes a dirty word, particularly when the goal is to tap into that reptilian side of the brain that leads to addiction,” says Rosenthal. “We’re looking for a deeper engagement that is about agency and context and giving kids a world to play in. ”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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