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Cover of Engineering Advantage Magazine, Fall 2018 issue

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He’s Got Game

Zachary Peterson and Larissa Liden during a recent lab.

Zachary Peterson talks with software engineering student Larissa Liden during a recent lab.

Video games like Super Mario Brothers played a memorable role in Zachary Peterson’s youth.

“I played a lot of board games, too,” said Peterson, an associate professor in the computer science and software engineering department. “I really enjoyed playing Stratego with my dad, which was a game of duplicity and subterfuge.”

Given his affinity for games, it’s no surprise that Peterson uses them as a tool to recruit and retain students to computer science – and particularly to computer security. That novel approach garnered the interest of New America, an influential Washington, D.C.-based think tank that just named Peterson one of 17 new cybersecurity fellows for 2018-19.

“New America is dedicated to confronting the challenges caused by rapid technological and social change,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, New America’s president and CEO, in a statement. “This is particularly true in cybersecurity, where productive discussions depend on a meaningful and ongoing exchange of views between policymakers and experts from a diverse array of backgrounds.”

New America, who employs over 200 people, is funded by titans like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google and the Ford Foundation, in addition to government entities, like the U.S. State Department. Fellows help support its positions with research, writings and more.

New America’s announcement cites Peterson’s efforts at outreach and education, “especially those methods centered around the use of games and play” – something he has employed at Cal Poly.

Portrait of Professor Zachary Peterson Zachary Peterson has been named a fellow at an influential think tank.

“A lot of my research here at Cal Poly has been in cybersecurity education – especially in ways we can teach security principles to younger and underserved students,” he said.

While the cybersecurity field is booming, with many high-paying jobs, getting students interested in the field – and keeping them interested – has been a challenge.

“Computer science generally suffers from high rates of attrition, and computer security is even worse,” Peterson said.

Nationwide, there’s also a lack of diversity in the field, he said.

 “That leads to a lot of homogenous thinking and hive-mind mentality, and that’s bad for computer security.”

With that in mind, he has created classroom experiences that are fun, inclusive and meaningful. That includes a course he developed that is taught as an alternate reality game.

“This year we’re running the entire class as a 10-week capture-the-flag game,” he said amid a room-full of students at the Cal Poly Northrop Grumman Cyber Lab.

Part of the class draws attention to the potential harms caused by new technology designed to make our lives easier.

“We have a bad habit of developing a new technology and then not thinking about its implications on security and adding security later,” he said. “And that is the worst way to design a secure system.”

Peterson is devising ways to make computer science more enticing to younger students as well, reaching out to them before they even come to college. He has created board games designed to teach young students about cybersecurity terminology and basic concepts, and he developed a cybersecurity track in the Engineering Possibilities in College summer camps.

Games and the cybersecurity field do have parallels, he said – “thinking about adversaries and strategy and what their next moves will be.”

Peterson is a past recipient of multiple National Science Foundation awards, and in 2016, he received the US-UK Security Fulbright Scholarship, which he used to continue his research exploring the use of games for teaching computer security concepts to new and non-technical audiences.

As a fellow, he expects to contribute information that will help New America develop policy solutions that can be lobbied to legislators and other important decision makers.

“It feels like an opportunity to affect change at a larger level,” he said.


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