A group of students at Rome Catholic School are learning how to become the future defenders of cyberspace through a pilot program that officials say is the first of its kind in the country.

The program teaches students about data protection, computer network protocols and vulnerabilities, security, firewalls and forensics, data hiding, and infrastructure and wireless security.

Most importantly, officials said, teachers discuss ethical and legal considerations in cyber security.

"It's a great course. It's a littler harder than I expected," said Catherine Gudaitis, a junior interested in theater. "But I know in the world I'm going to live in, this will be necessary information, even common knowledge."

President Bush made cyber security a focal point in February 2003 in his National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, citing the importance of safeguarding America from crippling Internet-based attacks by terrorists against U.S. power grids, airports and other targets.

The pilot program was developed with help from computer experts at the U.S. Air Force's Research Lab in Rome, who four years ago created a 10-week long Advanced Course in Engineering Cyber Security Boot Camp for the military's Reserve Officers Training Corps, said Kamal Jabbour, the lab's principal computer engineer.

"Besides teaching teenagers to protect their digital assets, the course opens their imagination to the challenges in cyberspace, and seeks to excite them into a college education in computer engineering and a professional career in cyber security," Jabbour said.

While computer courses are commonplace in American schools, the Rome program "is not just a little different. This is a step change," said Eric Spina, dean of Syracuse University's engineering and computer science programs, which also helped with the pilot's development.

Spina said the material covered in the course is subject matter that college students — even engineering and computer science majors — typically don't receive until their junior year.

"A high school student with this kind of background would be an asset anywhere they went," Spina said.

Although young people are more technologically savvy than ever, they too frequently dabble in high-tech mischief. Rome's program is an effort to rechannel that native interest, said Principal Christopher Mominey.

Thirteen students are enrolled in the 20-week elective course, which began with the start of the current semester Jan. 31. The class meets for 45 minutes after school four days a week, with two of the sessions devoted to lab time, said Ed Nickerson, one of three teachers who designed the curriculum.

With financial support from Rome Lab and Syracuse University, the school transformed a one-time home economics classroom into a 12-station wireless computer lab.

Nickerson said the students — sophomores, juniors and seniors — represent a wide spectrum of both academic ability and computer know-how. The school has approximately 400 students grades kindergarten through 12th, and a senior class this year of 18.

The curriculum will be offered statewide beginning next year. On Friday, several dozen administrators and educators attended a workshop at the Rome school as an introduction. A weeklong course will be offered in August to prepare high school teachers to teach cyber security. If successful, the program could be offered nationwide in 2008, Jabbour said.

The program was developed through a congressional grant obtained by U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee.

Boehlert said U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne offered assurances during his recent visit to Rome Lab that if the program is successful, it will be included in the budget as a permanent item.