In high school, whenever she pondered what she might want to do for a living, Sarah Hollifield asked herself what she excelled at.
“I’m good at video games,” she thought. “But where will that get me?”
Impressively far, as it turned out.
Now a senior Information Technology major at Middle Georgia State College, Hollifield, 21, is drawing attention for her talent as a game developer. Specifically, her work building a serious game (developer lingo for a teaching tool) that helps students learn the basics of conducting digital forensics investigations is getting professional recognition in the IT world.
Along with IT faculty members Johnathan Yerby and Dr. Myungjae Kwak, Hollifield recently presented a paper on the development of her game, “Digital Forensics Interactive,” at the HI TECH conference in Chicago. In October 2014, she will discuss her work at the International Association for Computer Information Systems conference in Las Vegas and publish an article about it in the Issues in Information Systems Journal.
“Those are pretty rare achievements for an undergraduate,” said Dr. Kevin Floyd, associate professor and program chair in the School of Information Technology. “She’s a superb student. Very few undergrads get the kinds of opportunities she’s getting, and she’s taking full advantage of them.”
A Bonaire resident and 2011 graduate of Warner Robins High School, Hollifield enrolled at Middle Georgia State as a business major. At first, she intended to transfer to a larger university after two years.
But as she learned more about what Middle Georgia State offered in the School of IT, Hollifield realized she could find a major that better suited her love of video games and all things digital. She committed to earning a bachelor’s in IT from Middle Georgia State, chose the software development concentration and through various courses entered the world of game development.
“It’s not easy,” she said, “but I’ve learned so much. I’m teaching myself digital forensics by developing a game about digital forensics.”
Digital forensics is a means to gather, process, interpret and use digital evidence related to cybercrime. Among other things, people in the field study evidence from attacks on computer systems to learn how they occurred, the extent of damage and possible means to prevent them from recurring.
In 2013, the School of Information Technology joined a consortium that focuses on advancing the study of digital forensics in traditional classes and online. The Advanced Cyberforensics Education Consortium (ACE) is made up of colleges from Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. ACE is funded by a National Science Foundation grant totaling $1,834,931 over four years. Floyd is managing the grant-funded work, which includes a state-of-the-art digital forensics lab the School of IT opened last spring.
The grant required the development of creative teaching tools to help students learn digital forensics. IT faculty recognized Hollifield’s talent and recruited her to develop the serious game. In her game, the player takes on the role of a digital forensics investigator called to a company to look into the activities of an employee suspected of stealing information to take to a competitor.
Hollifield’s game takes players through the clue-hunting steps of running the employee’s computer and other devices through forensics software. It also role plays techniques of non-digital investigation, such as interviewing company representatives.
The game is in the last stages of beta testing. Floyd said the School of IT will use the game in its classes and share it with other consortium schools. He plans to set up some opportunities to take the game to area high schools to introduce teens to digital forensics.
Hollifield is scheduled to graduate in spring 2015. She plans to work in software development, perhaps at a start-up company.
“I know a lot of people who grow up here want to go away to college – I did,” Hollifield said. “But I’m so glad I stayed at Middle Georgia State. The faculty are amazing, the camaraderie is great and I don’t think I would have gotten the opportunities I’ve gotten here anywhere else.”
Photo: Sarah Hollifield shows off her digital forensics serious game.