SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – Kanthi Narukonda wants to change how people picture cybersecurity. 

The Dakota State University graduate student and Chief of Operations for DSU’s CybHER program said too often people think of “a guy wearing a hoodie in the basement typing away on a keyboard in the dark” when they think of cybersecurity.

“It’s so much more than that,” Narukonda told KELOLAND News. “There’s so many different aspects to cybersecurity and we want more people to know that there are many avenues that you can pursue in cybersecurity as well.” 

In the next 12 months, Narukonda and the DSU CybHER outreach program will be putting on extra miles throughout South Dakota to share the cybersecurity message. This week, the CybHER program announced it received a $27,000 grant from the AT&T Foundation to fund more outreach and to introduce cybersecurity topics to all age levels at all nine Native American reservations in South Dakota. 

Kanthi Narukonda speaks about the CybHER program at a recent Girl Scout event. Photo from Dakota State University.

CybHER will work with Boys & Girls Clubs near the nine reservations in South Dakota — Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, Flandreau, Lower Brule, Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Sisseton-Wahpeton, Standing Rock and Yankton.

Cheryl Riley, President of AT&T Northern Plains, told KELOLAND News the company enjoys its partnership with Dakota State and the CybHER program. 

“Not only are we investing in our network, but we’re investing in our community,” Riley said. “We’re really committed to tackling the digital divide, making internet service more affordable and encouraging widespread adoption, especially in the native community.”

Riley added extra outreach to students and female students is a win-win. 

“It really opens up so many doors to students who may not have access to this technology, who may not know that this is something that they have passion for,” Riley said. “I’m just so excited about what could come from this.”

Narukonda said the timeline to visit all nine Native American reservations hasn’t been set, but the group hopes to reach some of the furthest located before the summer ends. 

Robots, security and games 

Approaching 10 years, CybHER started in 2013 to attract more women to the field of cybersecurity. The program offers a free summer camp in June for sixth through ninth grade students. 

Both Narukonda and Riley highlighted the leadership for Dr. Ashley Podhradsky, a  DSU professor and co-founder of the CybHER program. 

Kids play with robots during a CybHER outreach trip to the Standing Rock Reservation last summer. Photo from Dakota State University.

Over the years, the program has also done outreach in surrounding area schools like Madison, Sioux Falls, Brandon and Harrisburg. Narukonda said last year, the program made a stop at the Standing Rock Reservation in north central South Dakota. 

“Most kids like to play with robots,” Narukonda said. “What most of these robots have in common is that they allow the students to explore robotics on their own.” 

Narukonda said the Dash robots need block coding to move and kids have to drag and drop coding onto a screen to make the robots move. 

“It gives them the chance to explore exactly what coding is,” Narukonda said. “Instead of diving deep into actual programming language, it gives them a taste of exactly what programming does. It can increase interest in cyber sciences or computer sciences.” 

Along with the robots, the program speaks with high school students about online safety and social media safety. Narukonda said default settings for many social media apps keep data and location information open to the public. 

She said there’s Harry Potter-themed puzzles with cryptography and ciphers and her team is developing escape room programs focused on password security. 

“It’s these hands-on activities that encourage the students more or that gives them that little extra push to show this is a fun field,” Narukonda said. “It’s not just sitting at a desk or it’s not just you know, writing code, you can do all this fun stuff.”