News | Aug. 4, 2016

NSA Staffer Talks Cybersecurity with Teen Math Phenoms

Stuffing their brains with an endless series of math problems is not the secret to captivating the attention of most high school math whizzes. Many have tried that approach and failed.

Instead, Mervin Bierman, an information assurance professional at the National Security Agency, has found the secret to success in theatrics, which he pours on thick when he engages with bright students in the Rutgers Young Scholars Program in Discrete Mathematics. This intensive, residential, four-week summer initiative provides mathematically talented high school students with exciting content and encourages them to consider careers in the mathematical sciences.

Bierman, ever a showman, made his third consecutive appearance in July as part of the agency’s STEM Education Outreach Program to strengthen science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) instruction - and to raise awareness of STEM career paths. For nearly a decade, NSA has sent speakers to Rutgers for this initiative and offered related support.

Wearing a dark polo bearing the NSA seal, Bierman morphed into various characters and cracked jokes as he blended theatrical stagecraft with cybersecurity principles to educate students about information security in cyberspace. He called it a journey through his “Defense Against the Dark Arts” course. Most of the nearly two dozen students initially seemed hesitant to go along for the ride - even after having spent several hours immersed in number theory and probability. The few “Harry Potter” fans in the room quickly realized these “dark arts” did not involve magic or a flick of the wrist. These were all about computers and cyber hygiene.

“I want you all to look very closely. This is what a degree in computer science looks like,” said Bierman, pointing to himself and garnering a few chuckles. “Are you afraid yet? You should be.”

Now he had their attention.

Bierman went on to explain basic cyber tools used to defend against bad actors in cyberspace, emphasizing the importance of strong passwords to start. “Once I have your password, I have the key to the rest of your accounts,” he said, discussing why cyber criminals work hard to steal them.

Listed on a projector were the most common passwords used last year in the United States, which included “abc123, superman, batman, and justinbieber.”

“Oh my gosh! Justin Bieber is my password!” one student exclaimed.

It’s better to use “passphrases” instead of passwords, Bierman said, and to include special characters - or, to create a personal system in which you’d change letters to corresponding numbers. “You are the best defense against bad actors on this planet,” he said.

Software and firewall options were also explored during the presentation, which Dr. Joseph Rosenstein, a Rutgers University mathematics professor and director of the program, described as a perfect introduction to students’ subsequent course on coding and cryptography.

The Rutgers Young Scholars Program in Discrete Mathematics, now entering its 26th year, allows students who have an affinity for the subject “to meet other kids who are just like them,” Dr. Rosenstein said, characterizing it as a “great experience.” The professor also pointed out that, for the first time in many years, girls made up half of the participants.

Bierman said such academic outreach is an important part of NSA’s contributions to the nation.

The opportunity for agency employees to “educate youth on NSA principles like cyber safety and cryptography” is invaluable, he said.

Read more information about NSA’s STEM Education Outreach Program.