After 28 years teaching music education, Warren “Scott” Maddox, a teacher at Vilonia High School, has spent the last year introducing students to computer science and cyber security.

Maddox told the Log Cabin Democrat he got to a point where he wanted to do something different.

In the past five years or so, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has put forth much effort to promote computer science education across the state of Arkansas.

“When this initiative came out four or five years ago, I was all in,” Maddox said.

He said it was like stepping out of one universe into another.

In the past several years, Maddox estimated himself to have attended between 12-20 computer science workshops, spending “quite a bit of money and time” of his own to take varying tests including the Praxis, to become certified to teach in this area, letting the district administration know where he was at developmentally the entire way.

When a pilot program was offered in cyber security specifically, he said, the opportunity presented itself, Vilonia High School one of only around four across Arkansas to participate. So, 2018-19 was the district’s first year to offer the course.

“I’m really pleased with the fact that Vilonia recognizes that we have students that are going to college but we also have students who may never go to college,” Maddox said. “They need a career, they need a job.”

He said, at first, they were only going to do one year, a time for him to “get his feet wet,” the teacher told to take his time, not to rush through, no focus yet on certification.

“Low and behold, halfway through the semester, several of the students – very bright students – said that they wanted year two and I said, ‘OK, if we do year two, let’s make it where you guys can get industry certified in something,’” the teacher said, the district agreeing, now using Network Plus certification.

Maddox first had six students in that first course, each a semester. He said they already have around 14 signed up for year two.

“You want to see it grow and we’ll just see where that takes us,” the teacher said. “For me, it’s very exciting. Since this is a brand new program we started, you get to build something from the ground up.”

Maddox said they’re looking forward to seeing where they head.

“So far, I think it has been very successful,” he said. “All six of these students over the course of the summer are taking the Network Plus exam. Hopefully we’ll have six successes.”

VHS 2019 graduate Connor Knowles was one of those six. He passed his test in June, which means, he has that certification under his belt to open the door for basic, entry-level jobs at this point.

“For me to give students an opportunity to have a skill, even before they graduate, where they can get a summer time job that probably pays a little more than minimum wage because they have a certificate and at least some classroom experience, where they can get even more experience as an apprentice ... that speaks volumes for me,” Maddox said.

Coding, programming, computer science ... it was all new to Knowles when he walked into that first class in 11th grade, nearly two years ago. Never previously into technology, he said he was overwhelmed at first.

“It was really fun ... when we got to play with robots, learn more about coding, I thought that was really interesting,” he said. “I just found it so fun and I knew this field was growing. cyber security was becoming more needed. That’s what made me even more interested in it, was because it was becoming important.”

Knowles is set to attend the University of Central Arkansas in the fall. He plans to study cyber security and biology, eager to dive in and explore the field, excited to possibly narrow down a specific path he’d like to head toward career wise.

UCA is home to the state’s only fully functional, dedicated cyber range for educational training, developed with help from a $500,000 grant through the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, announced by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in October 2017.

“I really hope I get to try it out and learn some more stuff about it,” Knowles said. “Seems really cool.”

Maddox said he’s still learning how the cyber range works but is hopeful to get future students in to test it out, especially when it comes to the ethical portion of the course i.e. “white hat vs. black hat,” hacking and right and wrong.

“In a nutshell what that is, is a sandbox,” he said. “So, all these things that are illegal, we get to practice in the sandbox.”

But, it stops there. Maddox said the first thing he talks about his course not being a hacking class.

“There is a hacking side of it, but we emphasis the ethical hacking but that is a very small portion of what is being taught in the class,” he said. “When you talk about cyber security, it’s not just, for lack of a better word, not just a nerd world."

Maddox said there’s a lot of different levels in cyber security.

“It’s just about protecting from potential intruders, I guess you could say, that are coming either into your system, or someone else’s system and it can be as simple as someone looking over your shoulder and stealing your password … to something as complicated as someone running a program to see on network what is going to and from so they can capture your information that way,” he said.

The topic can be very simple or very advanced, Maddox said, and little to do with what people see in the movies, which, he said, is where education comes in and getting as many students interested in the course as they can.

“In general, a lot of it is preventative,” he said. “We set up firewalls to keep unwanted traffic from coming in and going out too.”

Computer science, coding, cyber security ... it’s all a tedious process, Maddox said, full of trial and error and problem solving, one of the appealing aspects that actually drew him in.

“Just like an email address, if you get one character incorrect, then it’s not going to work,” he said. “Computers are not smart. They’re only going to do what we tell them to do. You’re learning this just like you’re learning a language.”

Maddox said he’s amazed at how many parallels computer science and music actually have.

“The creative side for one,” he said. “If you compose music, you start with just a blank piece of paper. If you're trying to write a program, you say, what do I want this program to do, where do I begin. You just start and then you go.”

As a district employee, Deborah Knowles – Connor’s mother – said this is what they want to do for Vilonia students, give them options, including career readiness, but as a mother, seeing her son take a great interest in something was great.

She said she witnessed her son taking all different courses to try and find out what he was interested in, never really finding the right fit ... until he found this one.

“He didn’t know,” Deborah said. “When he got in to the cyber security course, I mean, everything changed. He started to study. Finally, finding that and just watching him study and get excited, I told Mr. Maddox ... it was just great.”