In May, a few weeks after his pilot program for teenage computer whizzes debuted, founder Andy Robinson wondered whether the undertaking had been worth it.
The entrepreneur was still trying to raise money for his computer- system defense course, offered to students free of charge - and four of the 10 teens in the after-school class were in danger of not passing. But by the June 18 graduation, two of those students had turned around, and Mr. Robinson regained his vision for a program that aims to motivate high-aptitude, low-achieving pupils.
"You could really see some of these kids starting to grow into their skins," says Robinson, who runs an information security business in Portland, Maine. "By week 4 or 5, I started to think it was rewarding."
Information-security programs exist across the country, aiding the fight against a growing army of savvy hackers, but few have the personal touch of Robinson's "High School Tiger Team" program. Named for a group of specialists retained to test an organization's computer-security systems, it's one of only a few in the country designed for teens.
Its founder was once himself a struggling high school student who credits his own turnaround to a computer science course his family encouraged him to take. Now he seeks out computer-oriented students who could benefit from "Tiger Team." He aims to not only motivate them, but introduce them to a profession where they can use their skills in a legal, ethical way.
Already, at least one of his pupils has reconsidered his future plans.
"It made me want to go to college more," says Scott Anderson, a recent high school graduate from Westbrook, Maine, who got a summer internship with an information security start-up based on his Tiger training. "You can get hired without a college degree, but one of the stipulations is that, most likely, you have to be working on a degree," he says.
Robinson, who is occasionally asked to talk to high schoolers about his profession, was mulling the idea of a course for teens when in 2002 he met a young man at a high school career fair who had been arrested for hacking. He wondered if that arrest could have been avoided if a course like the one he was thinking about had been available.
Eventually he created the Information Security Foundation (www.isfound.org), a nonprofit organization that sponsors the "Tiger Team" course in Westbrook. Launched in April of this year, the pilot program featured lectures from security information experts.
It also included a hands-on component, with a "capture the flag" exercise in which students were divided into teams and had to secure their own networks while trying to break into those of their opponents.
Some in the security industry worry about training teens in the finer points of hacking. But Robinson counters by saying, "Wouldn't you rather have them on your side?"
And students say that hacking instructions are readily available in books and on the Web. About half the students in the course said they had engaged in some activity that could be construed as hacking.
"If somebody wanted to be a real hacker, they don't need to go to this [course]," says Anderson, who admits to crashing friends' computers. "It teaches you more of the professional stuff."
Students in the pilot program had about 42 course hours and 70 to 100 hours of lab work, Robinson estimates. He's working to get college credit attached to the course, and in the future hopes to make it more widely available in Maine and possibly nationally. The next course is slated for September, provided that Robinson finds funding.
Outside academics see value in offering the course, but wonder if Robinson will continue to find enough teens who understand computer operating systems and networking. "I don't think it's going to be a regular high school course, but I think there's a need," says Gail Lange, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Maine at Farmington.
Robinson sees his trainees as a potential defense against a more sinister form of hacking - terrorism. He drives home to his students the importance of ethical professional conduct, and how tightened security laws make even seemingly harmless kinds of hacking illegal.
"These kids already have all the skills they need to be bad actors," he says. "We're saying [to] take these skills and put them in a positive framework, a professional framework: 'I'm going to do this as a career, or I'm not going to do it at all.' "