JMU students hack for American security

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) — They learn to hack in an effort to protect the country. A handful of James Madison University students are on the front-lines of the country's digital defenses.

They don't have special clearance, and some are still working on a college degree.

But a group of James Madison University students who made a trip to D.C. Thursday may prove critical to national defense.

Their curriculum – Hacking for Defense – is offered at nearly a dozen of the country's top colleges.

"It was probably the most unorthodox but phenomenal course that I've taken in my undergraduate career," said JMU. Senior Nahom Fissaha.

Students come from a range of backgrounds — and aren't hacking in a coding context, but in the broader sense of solving rapidly-evolving, technological problems.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," said recent JMU. Graduate Emma Richer. "It sounded like an incredible class, an incredible opportunity, and that's honestly what it gave me."

Currently, students in the class are working on a range of government challenges, from improving air travel security to monitoring threats on social media.

On Capitol Hill Thursday, former students briefed federal policy-makers on their progress.

"They've come up with some good ideas," said the course's current instructor, Dr. Erica Lewis.

She said their students aim for speedy results, so their fixes shouldn't be outdated by the time they're put to use. The course is a resume booster for the young adults, as well as potential tactical advantage for the government - where solutions are often developed over years.

"The problem sponsor gets a solution, they also get a better understanding of the problem," said Lewis, "and the student comes to the end of the course with some amazing skills."

Not all the students will choose work in or for the government. But, they said the skills they've learned translate into any career.