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Date: Tue, Jan 28th, 2020

Great Falls middle schoolers crack code for fun at Great Falls College

Computer Technology instructor Steve Robinett takes Great Falls middle schoolers with Montana with the Montana Educational Talent Search program through exercises to learn about cyber security.

GREAT FALLS -  "Code words!" shouted Luis Martinez, an eighth-grader at Great Falls' North Middle School.

He was one of 29 middle school students who learned this week about cyber security from Great Falls College MSU instructor Steve Robinett at the school's campus on the south side of Great Falls as part of the Montana Educational Talent Search program.

Encryption was a big part of Robinett's presentation to the students in the program that serves students in the Blackfeet, Crow, Flathead and Great Falls target areas to create a college-bound culture.

"We did exercises creating strong passwords and learned how to make -- and break! -- a simple cipher for encrypting information," Robinett said.

The federally funded Educational Talent Search is geared toward low-income and first-generation college-bound students, but other students also can benefit from the program.

Across the four target areas, there are more than 1,000 students. In Great Falls, there are about 250 middle and high school students in the program, with room for about 100 more students.

Kim Wombolt, who is one of two pre-college advisers in the Great Falls area, said the lesson on cyber security helped the students in the program "see that technology is all around us, and it's not scary," she said. "It's a great career opportunity."

Great Falls College's computer technology program is one of the few programs in the region to earn the designation of a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education from the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security.

"We have instructors who have current real-world experience in the field, which is something that not every program can offer," Robinett said.

Martinez, who is in his first year of the program that has been around for decades, was really motivated to learn about cyber security, computers and, especially, phones. "I love it," he said.

Fellow North Middle School eighth-grader David Conley wasn't as into the technology.

"This is as high tech as I get," he said while pulling a flip phone from his pocket and smiling.

But Conley has received a lot from the program as he has been exposed to so many different possibilities with field trips to various campuses and mentorship opportunities.

He plans to enlist in the U.S. Army after high school and then start taking college classes with the aim to work in fish and wildlife services as a game warden.

"I have learned a lot and got to see the opportunities that are out there," he said. "There are a lot of options you can do while in the military."

Laramie Smovir, Great Falls College's enrollment specialist, put on a College and Career Ready presentation.

"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't go to college," Smovir stressed to the group.

Martinez said he plans to go to Great Falls College up on graduating high school where he will learn to put code words and encryption to good use.

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Record Number: 659