Ohio tech teacher followed his passion for cybersecurity into the classroom
The Greek philosopher Plutarch described the process of educating young people “not as a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” The essence these wise words is that educating a young person involves much more than pouring bits of knowledge into their minds.
Rather, it should be about helping them gather materials for a fire — encouraging them to ask questions, take risks, and begin thinking for themselves, with the goal that they ignite a learning fire to light their path through life.
The validity of Plutarch’s observation is borne out by the thousands of teachers daily helping students ignite their own “fires of the mind.” One such teacher is Eli Cochran of the Delaware Area Career Center in Delaware, Ohio. Based on what is happening in his classroom, Cochran is determined to start as many fivealarm blazes as possible.
A self-professed “geek” who wears his geekdom with pride, Cochran brings an infectious passion and enthusiasm for electronics, robotics, and computers to his young charges. “As long as I can remember,” he explained, “I’ve always been into computers and technology.”
As a young teen, Cochran’s innate interest in all things tech-related resulted in a parental grounding for disassembling the family computer “just to see what was inside of it.” Acknowledging the budding tech wizard’s interest in technology, his mother purchased a VHS tape that showed how to build a computer — enthralled, Cochran finished it in one sitting.
A growing appetite for technology (combined with a teen boy’s dislike of restrictions on his fun) later enticed Cochran to “hack” the parental time controls on his video games by messing with their BIOS clocks — again without his mother’s knowledge. “I told her about what I had done when I was moving out a few years later and she wasn’t too happy,” he said.
As a junior in high school, Cochran happened to observe an engineering class while the students and instructor were discussing robots. Excited by the concept, on his own he designed and constructed a combat robot in a mere two weeks.
Teenage boys, naturally, do not build combat robots purely for love of learning. They do learn electronics and programming, but any young lad’s overarching desire is to see his creation fight other robots. Cochran entered his mini-terminator in the National Robotics Challenge (“NRC”) and quickly ran up against a few tougher and meaner robots. “I came in pretty close to last, but I loved the experience,” he said.
As a college freshman, Cochran realized his school did not have a robotics team. He decided to rectify this shortcoming by making himself a team of one. Again, entirely on his own, he built a new-and-improved combat robot — and won first place in his division.
A roundabout route to teaching
The robotic experience made a lasting impression on Cochran — his involvement in robotics continues to this day, as he serves as the NRC’s Director of Contest Judging. Participating in NRC events and watching the people in charge, particularly NRC director Tad Douce, sparked Cochran’s interest in teaching. “Seeing how Tad Douce connected with students is one of the reasons I became a teacher,” he said.
Cochran didn’t make that leap right away, however: After high school, he leveraged his tech skills for a position with a small business that repaired ATMs. Before long, he was wearing many different hats on the job and growing in responsibility. “The owner found out that not only could I fix ATMs, but also computers, and I became the IT network guy,” he said.
As the company IT guy, Cochran utilized soldering skills he had learned as a Boy Scout to save his employer more than a quarter-million dollars by doing board-level repairs on broken PCBs. To advance his IT career, Cochran moved on to a larger company that provided digital courtroom proceedings and audio-visual integration. Five years in, he was promoted to a regional manager position and began hitting the road to conduct software training events around the country.
Like many a road warrior, however, the rigors of travel eventually led him to consider a job change. “I was burned out from all the travel,” explained Cochran. “I would leave on a Sunday night and return a few days later. It was fun while it lasted, and I got to see a lot of the country, but I wanted to stay close to home.”
In 2018, Cochran began working as an end-point engineer in the Delaware Area Career Center IT department. Although he liked his job, the thought of being in the classroom was always on his mind and hearing that the center’s network instructor was retiring, and that the school wanted to switch the program from networking to cybersecurity, he threw his hat into the ring.
“I thought about the job, a lot,” he said. “I had always enjoyed IT and cybersecurity and decided to apply for the instructor position.” Cochran made the switch to teaching in the summer of 2019 and has never been happier. “I’m in my second year of teaching and enjoying every day of it,” he said.
Unlike most new instructors, Cochran inherited a well-stocked computer lab. “The former instructor of the network lab left behind a lot of equipment. All sorts of things like Raspberry Pis and routers for the students to use.”
In addition to an embarrassment of technological riches, Cochran has added a few things of his own, sometimes in an unorthodox manner. Using social media, he asked whether anyone knew of companies that might be getting rid of used equipment. “In December, I found a company that was getting rid of some surplus gear. I asked for anything they had and got three five-year old servers,” he said.
Cochran and his program also receive strong support from DACC’s administration. “The support I get is amazing, not just support for the labs and students, but also for myself. Being new to teaching, I’ve had a lot of unexpected things I’ve had to deal with,” he said.
Nearly all teachers starting out their careers learn the important lesson of humility — they may be the teacher, but they don’t know everything. It has been the same for Cochran. “I’ve learned I have to be humble,” he explained, “When I make a mistake, I own up to it and tell the students that we will do things differently from now on.”
Keeping students busy
Although Cochran’s classes are electives, students do not enroll looking for an easy grade. “Cybersecurity is not an easy program,” he said. “There is a lot of work and students are earning the same industry certifications that professionals in the field are getting.”
Cochran’s expectations for his students are akin to what an employer would like to see in job applicants. “I go at it [teaching] from the industry side and think, ‘Coming out of high school what is it that I wish I knew or was taught,’ ” he said.
DACC’s cybersecurity course is a two-year program. Students enter as juniors and continue through their senior year. Year one gives students a healthy introduction into hardware and software, as well as the opportunity to earn certifications for CompTIA A+, TestOut PC Pro and Cisco IT Essentials. “We have to get to the basics before we can really get into cybersecurity,” said Cochran.
The pace of learning picks up in senior year as students dive into cybersecurity, earning CompTIA Security+, TestOut Security Pro, and, what Cochran says is “the fun one, the one everyone looks forward to completing,” TestOut Ethical Hacker Pro.
Seniors also complete a capstone project on a topic related to IT in general or cybersecurity specifically. “This is a passion project,” said Cochran, “something a student really wants to do.”
During both years, Cochran soaks his students with IT knowledge and hands-on experience by bringing in guest speakers from the industry, arranging job shadows, and helping students conceive and carry out service projects for the community.
Further establishing his “geek cred,” Cochran is an amateur radio operator, call sign KD8RBH. He volunteers his skills to help out the Delaware County Emergency Management Association (“EMA”) in emergencies. “Shortwave radio fascinates me,” he said. “It’s glorified walkie talkies, but I really geek out with this stuff because in an emergency, cell phones may not work, but shortwave radio always does.”
One community service project the students are currently doing is revamping and programming equipment for the EMA. The project is optional — no grade is given for participating. Cochran sees it as a way for the students to use their soft skills to communicate with others in a real-world setting.
“It’s a great experience for them. One of my seniors specced out all the equipment, the kids are thinking out of box and have even come up with some ideas I’ve never seen in the industry,” he said.
While his cybersecurity courses do follow a set curriculum and students are required to meet educational standards, Cochran has accelerated the learning experience by implementing a modified version of an increasingly common practice among tech companies called the “20 Percent Project.”
The goal of the 20 Percent Project is to foster creativity and boost productivity among employees by letting them work on personal tech projects for 20 percent of their work time. Most people credit tech behemoth Google with inventing the practice — and many of their services and products, such as Gmail, originated from personal employee projects — but the idea actually began with the manufacturing multinational 3M Corporation back in 1948.
Cybersecurity breeds creativity, competition
Cochran allots approximately five percent of lab time for students to work on projects of personal interest. The practice has proven to be a fruitful inspiration for the students. Working individually and in combination with others, students have developed some interesting innovations utilizing existing tech.
A popular student creation using a raspberry pi is a barcode checkin (and -out) scanner for bathroom breaks. Another impressive item is a Unraid server, a device that saves money and time by enabling the class to run virtual machines and dockers.
According to Cochran, the real benefit of his five percent rule is not what happens in class, but the learning that takes place outside of class. “It has been a real motivation for some students to work ahead at home so they can have that time in the lab to collaborate with classmates.”
Cochran is liberal in encouraging students to try out new ideas on the standalone computer systems in the classroom. As students experiment, they are not just practicing rote procedures but are developing the ability to think independently and creatively.
“I’m a firm believer in allowing students an outlet to flex their digital muscles, as we like to say in class,” he explained. “It’s not fair to teach them cybersecurity and not let them see how it actually works.”
To stress the importance of proper cybersecurity practices, Cochran lets students build a Pwnagotchi — a spinoff device like the Tamagotchi from the 1990s. Pwnagotchi enables passive sniffing of wireless networks. “It’s a fun little toy they can build for $20 or $30 that shows how easy it is for wireless networks to be compromised,” he explained. “Of course, it’s passive; capturing PCAPs is legal because you’re just monitoring RF.”
Students also have ample opportunity to run software on the systems. One student used a rubber ducky and wrote a payload that put the computer into a boot loop. “The kids love it,” said Cochran. “Anything goes — as long as it doesn’t physically damage the device or capture personal information on anyone, it’s fair game.”
These are cybersecurity classes, however, and Cochran runs a tight ship when it comes to working with the actual production systems. The rules are simple: no jump drives in class (these can be used to inject malware onto a system), and each student must sign a software authorization form prior to using any software outside of the curriculum.
“I remind them regularly that ‘Mr. Cochran is the only one allowed to download software,'” he said.
With leeway to practice their newly learned skills, the students are blossoming well under Cochran’s direction. Members of his classes enjoy participating in capture the flag competitions (“CTF”) and they can hold their own. Last year DACC’s team was the first high school team to participate in a nationwide college-level CTF event.
Cochran’s kids finished 10th out of 20 teams. This year, the team is competing in an international contest and is currently in a tie for first place. “I’m very proud of my students, they take responsibility for putting the team together, practicing, and competing. They pretty much run the whole team,” he said.
Cochran is also proud of what he calls his “first ace” as one of his young charges recently scored a perfect 1,000 on a Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification exam. “The best part of teaching is my students,” he said. “Every day, I’m amazed at the talented group of students I have the opportunity to teach and help grow!”
The COVID-19 shutdown hit Delaware Area Career Center just as hard as every other school, requiring Cochran to quickly modify his teaching methods. “When I signed up to start teaching, I would have never thought of having to switch to full remote teaching at the end of my first year and then switching to a hybrid schedule this year,” he said.
Fortunately, his courseware was already fully online via TestOut and Cisco Networking Academy. TestOut’s LabSim learning platform proved especially vital for students. “Because students didn’t have access to hardware, TestOut simulations allowed my lab to pivot overnight and continue learning remotely,” Cochran said.
“Don’t misunderstand me: It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. But all things considered, students are still learning and getting certifications!”
Cochran also sees a silver lining to the shutdown. “It was definitely a change for students,” he explained. “Their whole school career had been in person and now they had to change on a dime. But they are learning how to manage their time and balance everything they have to do.
“They have to plan their projects ahead of time and communicate clearly with others. Those are skills that will pay off in the future and employers will be glad to have them because they have learned it the hard way.”
Oftentimes, simple decisions made for convenience result in greater and more positive benefits than anticipated. Three years ago, Eli Cochran left a high-paying job to “be closer to home.” While he lives just six miles from school, his influence and personality will eventually spread much farther than he ever imagined, as students use the knowledge and skills he teaches to light their way in successful careers and in life.