During her freshman year of college, Lacey Wicks was doing something many people do: making an online purchase. Soon afterwards, she started noticing unfamiliar charges to her credit card and realized she’d been hacked. She describes feeling hopeless and not knowing what to do. Looking back on the situation, she said, “I was amazed at how easy it is for someone to do that.”
Wicks grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. She attended Jackson Public Schools and described a struggling urban school system that lacked funds to provide enough computers for its students. However, it was in Jackson that she participated in the Technology Student Association, which provides exposure to technological studies. Through the program she competed in a robotics competition in which, to her surprise, she earned second place. That award sparked her interest in the sciences.
After completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from Jackson State, Wicks aspired to pursue a doctoral degree. Having set her sights on UA, she pursued financial aid to help her to reach her goal.
A year later, Wicks received a message from Dr. Jeffrey Carver, graduate program director and chair of the UA Cyber Initiative in the College of Engineering. That message was the lifeline she needed. Wicks had received a Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) fellowship to fund her studies.
Dr. Carver, with his colleague and Cyber Security Program director Dr. Travis Atkison, would later deliver more exciting news. The professors had been contacted by the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the United States Air Force that provides aviation and related fields training to cadets through aerospace/STEM education. The group predicted a deficit in cyber security and sought to address the threat proactively. Drs. Carver and Atkison commissioned Wicks to work with them to create a cyber security plan. Over the course of roughly a year and a half, the team created a five-chapter curriculum on cyber security.
Crafting the curriculum proved valuable for the trio. Dr. Atkison said, “Developing the module was a great experience. We realized just how much information we wanted to share about Cyber Security. It was difficult to narrow it down to a manageable set of topics. We also discovered the dire need for this type of education and training for the age group of those in the Civil Air Patrol. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with that group to produce the module.”
The feedback Wicks, Carver and Atkison have received is resoundingly positive. Wicks reported, “The cadets enjoy getting out of their seats, working in groups and learning about words like spyware and malware that you hear on the news.”
Given the current digital climate, Wicks found it imperative to include a chapter on cyber bullying in the curriculum. She said, “I was very passionate to write about cyber bullying. Students at this age don’t understand how impactful the internet is and how things can stay with you for life. I hope what they learn helps them be a better cyber citizen, be friendly on the internet and enact safe cyber habits.”
About the Civil Air Patrol’s use of the curriculum, Dr. Carver said, “Adoption of these guidelines means important work done by The University of Alabama and the UA Cyber Initiative has the potential to influence over 20,000 Civil Air Patrol Cadets. Building on our designation as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Research by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency, and our membership in the United States Cyber Command Academic Engagement Network, we are proud that our work will help shape the next generation of cadets’ cyber security knowledge and potentially inspire some of them to become Cyber Security professionals.”
When asked how she hopes her work will be used, Wicks said, “I hope it prevents people from getting hacked like I did and from being in a situation where they don’t know what to do or, if they are in that situation, I hope it gives them some knowledge.”
Currently in her third year of study, Wicks hopes to graduate in 2023. Following graduation, she aims to become a professor or start a nonprofit teaching young students about cyber security. She said, “I envision something like Cyber Week at school. Especially in communities like the one I grew up in.”