A threat in an online game chat room didn't faze Alexis Rivera. The Ridley High School senior immediately contacted local police, who told her to delete her account.
"They are just cyber boys," Rivera, 17, said about the teen wannabe hackers who told her to pose before a Web cam or else they would hack her computer. "They think they can control people."
Had the cyber boys known whom they were targeting, they might have changed their minds.
Rivera intends to pursue a digital forensics career with the FBI. She is one of 37 students at the Delaware County Technical School in Aston enrolled in a new network systems program that offers a concentration in computer forensics.
Part CSI, part information technology, the curriculum prepares students for the rapidly growing field of digital forensics - gathering, preserving, and investigating evidence stored on any digital device. The secondary school's offering is one of a growing group of programs that also includes college and professional seminars and conferences.
"It is a hot topic," said Dave Tatum, vocational network instructor at the Aston campus.
Students there acquire a foundation in network administration and technology classes through lectures, demonstrations, and hands-on classes. During the two-year program, they will learn to build a small computer network from the ground up. They also will learn about the new laws governing electronic discovery. Half their school day is spent at the high school in their home districts, the other half at the Aston campus.
"If these kids stick with it, they will have a hell of a career," said Nancy White of the Computer Forensics Analysis and Training Center in Sharon Hill, who teamed up with the Aston school to help develop the program's curriculum. "It is a long process, but it is a great and exciting new field within information technology."
"Digital programs are exploding throughout the country," said J.P. McDonald, director of the FBI's Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory in Radnor.
With criminals finding more ways to exploit technology, computer forensics touches every crime the FBI handles, he said.
Digital evidence can be found in many places, including computers, cameras, video-surveillance systems, cell phones, game consoles, portable hard drives, and GPS units. Investigators need to know how to retrieve the evidence without altering the data, and to be able to present their findings in court.
"I tell anyone that is interested criminal justice is still good, but to get something that will make you stand out, get a computer science degree," McDonald said.
When an undergraduate computer forensics major was offered at Bloomsburg University, the enrollment went from zero to 160 students in four years, officials said.
Math major Felicia DiPrinzio said she was hooked after taking an introductory course in the spring semester of her senior year. She returned in the fall to complete credits for a second degree, in computer forensics.
DiPrinzio, 27, who graduated in 2008, works for the Harford County (Md.) Sheriff's Office as a civilian computer forensics examiner. The cases she helps investigate range from child pornography and exploitation to identity theft, fraud, and homicide.
John Riley, professor of computer forensics at Bloomsburg, said, "We think we are five years ahead of people at this point." Full-degree programs are rare, he said.
Riley expects many graduates to enter the private sector - where the average large corporation has about 300 pending lawsuits - as well as law enforcement.
While students can apply for a traditional four-year course of study, Riley said, Bloomsburg also partners with Luzerne County Community College and two local vo-tech high schools for a model that includes two years in high school, two years in community college, and two years at the university.
Locally, Chestnut Hill College offers a six-course accelerated certificate in computer forensics and electronic discovery in its School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Last year, college officials revamped the program to include not only students interested in law enforcement, but also those in the legal field.
"This is the type of program that would be helpful for a paralegal," said Elaine Green, dean of the school.
Delaware County Community College is in the building stages of a computer forensics program. The college hopes to attract high school graduates and those already in the workforce, said Wynne Devenney, director of the Information Technology Academy. Bucks County Community College offers a few courses in computer forensics.
Rutgers University offers an online course in computer forensics through its Center for Continuing Professional Development.
Rivera plans to enter a four-year university program to further her education. The Aston program is providing her the background she thinks she needs to get her degree in digital forensics.
"Anything in computers," Rivera said. "That is what I live for."