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Teaching the humanities of hacking

Sharon Litwin (photo by Jason Kruppa)

Sharon Litwin (photo by Jason Kruppa)

Editor's Note: In honor and memory of Sharon Litwin, The Queen here at NolaVie, we will be publishing a piece from her every day for the next month. Sharon was an advocate and spokeswoman for arts, culture, people, and policies here in New Orleans. Her voice and sharp wit will be greatly missed. 

To hear Sharon Litwin interview teacher Chuck Gardner on WWNO public radio, click here.

 

Dr. Chuck Gardner

Dr. Chuck Gardner

The only thing a student has to do to get into the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy is pass the LEAP test and have his or her parents or guardians come to one teacher conference. No, the word military in the title does not mean it’s a recruiting arm for the United States Armed Forces, nor  is it a reform school for so-called bad kids. On the contrary, this 3-year-old West Bank high school, located within Federal City, prides itself on its strict and highly-structured focus on academics. But one faculty member has figured out how to insert a little fun into the school’s serious academics. That makes Dr. Charles Gardner one of the most popular teachers there.

Chuck Gardner teaches algebra and math. He’s also the Cyber Science Coordinator, the one who runs the elective robot classes. That’s a cyber science course he kind of fell into after first one teacher, and a then a second, left just as NOMMA was starting up in 2011. He says he kind of fumbled his way through the first few lessons, learning how to present the course work in a curriculum created by a group at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, LA.

But then he decided there needed to be one more essential component added to that curriculum. By introducing his students to the critical humanities aspects and social responsibilities of the devices they are learning to build, he is teaching them how to deal with and respect automated systems that can operate without human control.

“The program is designed to give students some real world skills,” Gardner explains. “But also to keep them grounded in the ethics of what we are embarking on. Some of the humanities aspects we talk about involve current events. We’ve talked about the Chinese hacking incidents; the use of facial recognition at sporting events.”

Learning how to hack into so-called secure devices is taught at a level so low there is no chance any student can actually hack into, for example, any of today’s ATM’s. But, the point, Gardner says is “to make them smarter and wiser with regard to what’s their public profile, to what’s out there that’s attackable; pin numbers, passwords, all that stuff.”

NOMMA also has a partnership with the Office of Naval Research to create some underwater robotics.

“We’re going to have a little splash pool so we can do some wet tests,” Gardner says. “Then we’d like to get some aerial robots going.”

Another project planned to come online next year focuses on the M for Maritime in the NOMMA name.

“This program will be a four-year elective,” Gardner explains. “The first two years will be classroom studies. The last two years will be hands-on experiences with loaned industry equipment: boats, engines and cranes. We may even be going to the port to do some work there. There’s lots of opportunities for students in that area.”

While there is a band at NOMMA, and those students as members of the Academy’s mandated JROTC are allowed to march in Mardi Gras parades, there are few organized sports activities.

“We don’t make sports a big thing,” Gardner says. “At NOMMA, academics will always trump athletics.”

For more information about the academic and elective courses at the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy email [email protected] or call 504-227-3810.

Below are some automated devices, which are programmed not to run into or collide with any object, as well as the maze the students built to work with the robots.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]