At times Phillip Fleming’s students couldn’t access some of the coursework for his cybersecurity class at the Career & Technology Center.

That was because of restrictions on some websites his students needed, as they were using the network operated by the Fort Osage School District. The district runs the Career & Technology Center, which draws students from across the area.

Fleming came up with a dual-purpose solution. He is having his students build their own cybersecurity network separate from the district’s. It serves not only as a way to get to necessary classwork but it provides the students a hands-on of experience that could benefit them if they work in the field of cybersecurity.

“For the things we we’re doing, (the district’s network restrictions) made it impossible (to access some coursework),” Fleming said. “And they are perfectly reasonable restrictions. We teach kids how to harden systems, so that intruders can’t get in, and part of that is learning to get in.”

“The idea came from our network people. I thought, ‘What if the kids set that up?’ This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing because we’re not going to tear it back down again.”

The district and Fleming’s class use the Missouri Research and Education Network as an internet service provider. Both networks work side by side, but the cybersecurity class has its own access in a separate port.

His students built it through software programing and physically hooking up computer towers and filters through ethernet cables. Fleming has mostly been hands off with the year-long project. He’s let the students do most of the troubleshooting through research, trial and error, and contacting a technical support line through MOREnet.

The process of building the network has given his students a unique opportunity.

“My kids high-fived and jumped up in the air when we brought the network online because suddenly everything we are doing is so much easier,” Fleming said. “They don’t have to come and ask me to get to this website all the time. We still have filters because by law, you have to have them.”

“I knew this was going to be a challenge for them to do this and not just doing it myself. We had to decide if we wanted to do this fast, or have kids do it themselves and have it take longer. They are doing things that high school kids usually don’t get to do.”

On the district’s network, the websites the students couldn’t access included ones that show different ways people can hack into networks. That’s one of the basic principles of Fleming’s class, as the students have to figure out how to hack into networks to prevent hackers from getting into theirs.

“We do something that’s called penetration testing on these (virtual) machines,” Blue Springs South student Jackson Aholt said. “We’ll do something called CyberPatriot. It will load up different virtual machines and secure up those machines and see how vulnerable they are.”

With the new network that’s being built, the students use computers hooked up to it to see if they can get into other computers on the new one. That way they can figure out what adjustments need to be made to keep outsiders from getting in, using firewalls and other security measures.

There are three main computer towers that control the network code named Howard, Beverly and Blumburtt. The network acts as a workplace for the students where they can share files.

“It kind of creates a straight pipe for us to communicate with each other,” project manager and Grain Valley student Dane Bridges said.

Students divided into groups to work on different areas of the project such as documentation and project management, an email server, an active directory and a Linux server.

“The email server allowed us to communicate together,” Bridges said. “The Linux server allowed us to have a virtual server running inside the physical server. It is like a sand box. You could test things that you could do on a physical device on the virtual one, so it doesn’t hurt anything. It’s like a test tube.

“We also had the active directory, which is the center of everything. It allows to gain access to all of the other sections. It’s the main hub.”

In addition, the students had to do all the wiring between the computer towers, filters and hubs to make it all work, giving them experience with working with software and hardware.

“The physical work has been mostly wiring through the roof and getting into the other rooms in the building,” student Ricky Zeiler said. “We hooked up the computers to the different switches (above two of the main towers).”

Whenever there’s a problem with the network, the students have to figure out a way to solve it.”

“Every day we hit an obstacle,” Bridges said. “Usually it’s not being able to get somewhere like a connection problem. One time I made a mistake. When we finally got our network setup, I found a loose cable hanging from the ceiling, and I impulsively plugged it into our network. But what I did was plug in our old network that we no longer use into the new one. It created this infinite loop of two networks fighting over control.”

Through all of the obstacles and successes, the learning experience has helped students get an opportunity to interview for internships at Cerner.

“I actually got a unique opportunity and interview for a job position (at Cerner),” Aholt said. “This class has been extremely helpful for me. Two years ago, I didn’t even think about doing something like this. I amount of knowledge I’ve gained is immense. It helped me get into the job force and learn about computers in general.”

It had the same effect for Bridges.

“Everything we have been doing is representative of what you would be doing in the real workforce,” he said. “The hands-on experience is invaluable.”