This feature first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
In years gone by, I would help my children develop critical thinking skills by engaging them in various thought exercises during mealtimes. Our favorite was “Zombie Apocalypse Team.” The object of this exercise was for each participant to choose five individuals to team with when zombies attack and to explain the reasons for their choices.
Individuals would be picked based on their knowledge and skills that would be useful in the crisis. For example, a doctor for medical assistance. To keep the game fresh, we would change the pool of potential draftees. Sometimes it would be celebrities, other times characters from The Simpsons, neighbors, or even members of our church congregation.
Sadly, my children never chose me. Apparently writing the story of the end of the world, or doing research and interviews, or even correcting typos with extreme prejudice, isn’t a priority when fighting for survival. On my turn, I’d opt for individuals who had a mix of talents and knowledge. My choices were always people with high intelligence, military experience, mechanical skills, innovativeness, dependability, and useful hobbies.
I’m looking forward to rolling out this exercise again at our next family gathering, because I have a new number one draft pick for carrying me through the zombie apocalypse: cyber operations instructor Mathew Heath Van Horn, one of the most interesting, talented, and all-around useful people I’ve ever met.
Heath Van Horn’s defining characteristic is an insatiable desire to learn. It’s driven him his entire life. “When I find something that interests me, I just have to pull that thread and see where it goes,” he said.
Yanking on threads has enabled Heath Van Horn to acquire a “wide and varied” list of hobbies including graphology (handwriting analysis), furniture building, electronics, painting, hacking, motorcycle riding, archery, and lock picking to name just a few.
When it comes to hobbies, Heath Van Horn doesn’t just dabble — he digs deep, reading multiple books on the subject, talking to experts, and experimenting with tools and techniques until proficiency is achieved. “If a skill interests me, I’ll spend a year or two mastering it, then move on to something new,” he explained.
Poor student, excellent learner
The root of all that curiosity reaches back to 1971 in the small farming town of Kasota, Minn., population 350. Although a determined learner when he wants to be, Heath Van Horn readily admits that he was a poor student who barely graduated from high school. His preference was to be outdoors engaged in activities of his own making.
“School really wasn’t my thing,” he said, “I was too busy learning stuff on my own.”
During high school, his painting and drawing talent earned him multiple Grand Champion awards. He also learned binary code by writing it out longhand, and even taught himself a second language to impress female classmates. “I figured Latin would help me pick up chicks,” he joked, “but it didn’t work.”
His art teacher encouraged him to apply to art colleges, but young Heath Van Horn had other plans — he wanted to learn more about electronics and figured that the military would be the place to do so. He chose the Air Force because of his dad’s advice. “When I was looking at the different services Dad said, ‘Join the Air Force. They have better food.’ And he was right!”
Before leaving for basic training, Heath Van Horn had a familial duty to perform. His parents divorced when he was six years old, but he continued to have a great relationship with both Mom and Dad. As soon as he turned 18, he honored them both by legally changing his last name from Van Horn to Heath Van Horn.
“Van Horn was my mother’s maiden name, and I was the oldest son of an only son, of an only son, of yet another only son — so it didn’t seem right to let my father’s name (“Heath”) die out, nor to ignore my mom who raised me,” he explained.
Working for Uncle Sam
Heath Van Horn thrived in the Air Force. They taught him electronic theory and made him a ground radio communications equipment repair specialist. If a piece of machinery received or sent a signal, his job was to make sure it worked.
During his 23-year service he rose in rank from Airman Basic to Major. The self-professed poor student also took advantage of schooling opportunities, completing a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a PhD in computer science. While stationed in the United Kingdom, he made time to be an adjunct instructor and tutor in advanced math and science courses.
To stay physically fit, he participated in semi-contact karate matches and was undefeated for 10 years. He also learned to read palms. “I know palm reading is bunk, but I figured it would be a good way to meet girls. But it didn’t work either,” he laughed.
He even learned cross-stitching to help stay busy during slow times, and he was really good at it. “The military is a lot of ‘hurry-up-and-wait.’ So, instead of sitting around doing nothing, I taught myself to cross-stitch,” he explained. One of his creations won second place in an Air Force mixed-medium art competition. It was two dragons fighting and consisted of 700,000 stitches.
As a communications expert, Heath Van Horn was often called on to solve complex electronic problems, frequently without prior experience — and without the proper tools. With spare parts and with only his trusty Leatherman tool, he once successfully “MacGyvered” 47 mission critical communications links for the National Airborne Operations Center, the unit responsible for directing nuclear strikes.
“I’d never done anything like that before and just had to figure it out on the spot,” he said.
Military service in Iraq
Heath Van Horn also volunteered for two tours in Iraq. “I figured I’d been in the military for almost 20 years and hadn’t been in a combat zone, so I said, ‘Why not?’ ” he explained. In Iraq, Heath Van Horn served with the 322nd Tactical Control Squadron — better known as the Red Tails of Tuskegee Airman fame.
His assignment in Iraq was to direct the installation and maintenance efforts for 9,000 users spread across 277,000 square miles. He and his staff frequently worked under extreme pressure as the Iraqis launched more than 3,000 missile and rocket attacks on their position.
His most notable contribution to the war effort came in the base hospital watching patients being prepped for shipment to Germany for further treatment. He heard a doctor tell a nurse to “burn a DVD” of a patient’s medical information and pin it to his chest.
Asking why medical info wasn’t transferred electronically, he learned that sending a patient’s medical info via the base’s 2,800-bit satellite uplink took longer than sending a physical copy with a patient. The inability to send info digitally meant a delay of between six and eight hours before doctors in Germany could even begin prepping for new patients.
Heath Van Horn and his crew upgraded the hospital with fiber optics that enabled medical files to be compressed and digitally transferred. Doctors in Iraq could now communicate in real-time with counterparts in Germany, helping to increase patient survival rates. Pleased with the communication upgrade, the docs awarded Heath Van Horn and his guys with medical challenge coins — a rare recognition for non-medical personnel.
Shedding his IT career (briefly)
Heath Van Horn ended his military service at Mountain Home, Idaho. Free to move anywhere, his family loved the area and decided to stay. Unfortunately, he needed work — and computer scientists weren’t much in demand in the region.
Undeterred, he decided to start his own business. For $436 he purchased a computer, a sign, and other sundries from a failing business that sold sheds. “I got into it because the area needed sheds, not a hacker,” he explained.
Putting all his energies into the business, he discovered his penchant for marketing and soon expanded company offerings to include stoves, electric bikes, boat trailers, and playground sets. Within four years the business was grossing $1 million annually. There was just one small problem: Heath Van Horn’s heart was no longer in it. “Business was great, but I just didn’t like being a businessman,” he explained.
Pondering his next career move, he thought back on his experiences in the classroom and how much he enjoyed teaching. In 2017, he sold his business for a hefty profit, packed up family and furniture, and headed east for the Empire State and his new job, teaching information technology (IT) classes at State University of New York (SUNY) at Delhi.
Heath Van Horn soon learned a lesson that many new teachers learn — that teaching isn’t exactly what you imagined it would be. He was replacing a retiring professor whose courses were 100 percent lecture-based. Students did have computers, but weren’t permitted to make modifications to the machines. Every class was a lecture with a load of slides.
He made the best of the situation, but it was a rough year, and he often went home frustrated. “I wanted to cry,” he said. “There was no money for IT stuff and the first semester was awful, just slide after slide after slide followed by multiple choice tests for the students.” Students weren’t excited about the class or its learning format and pass rates were low.
Convinced that change was needed, Heath Van Horn approached his bosses to promote a better way of teaching IT. “I explained the benefits of hands-on learning with computers and recommended we change the program’s mode of operation.”
Administration agreed, but money was tight and all they could come up with was $400. Heath Van Horn stretched his paltry budget to purchase one Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) learning kit consisting of two routers and switches and an old computer for live demonstrations.
The switch to hands-on learning had an immediate effect on student performance. Students who had failed the networking course the previous semester used the equipment to ace the course this time around.
Heath Van Horn also introduced “white-hat hacking” into his cybersecurity courses to fire up student interest even more. He taught password cracking, DNS spoofing, and the importance of physical security. “The students responded well when we could use the equipment to make the lessons real,” he said.
Students were thrilled with what they were learning and requested more practice computers. Administration also liked how things were progressing. “Mat is helping take our IT degree to a whole new level,” said Barbara Sturdevant, the Director of Business and Information Technology Department. The department scratched up additional funds to purchase eight used CCNA sets. Students were more engaged than ever and the pass rate in IT courses jumped from 62 percent to 86 percent.
Heath Van Horn kept looking for more funding and, in 2019, received a grant to purchase enough gear to equip 24 student learning stations in his classroom. “It was great,” he said. “The students were now spending hours working with the equipment and learning the joys of failure and success.”
Picking locks and coping with COVID
One popular class period covers the importance of physical security and involves students learning to pick a padlock. This class had previously been met with skepticism by students — and some faculty members. When it was time to teach the lesson again, Heath Van Horn invited the department dean and the school provost to attend.
He also brought an expert in lock picking to teach the class — his 9-year-old daughter. She picked the lock in 60 seconds. “The class was a hit,” said Heath Van Horn. “Three students and the provost were successful in picking padlocks.”
Students in his IT classes are guaranteed to pass, as long as they do the work. To keep things simple, he uses a binary grading system — projects are either complete or not. To help students understand that principle, he likens IT projects to pregnancy.
“There’s no such thing as being 72 percent pregnant. You either are pregnant or you’re not. It’s the same thing in IT — a project either works or it doesn’t,” explained Heath Van Horn.
Because TestOut courseware is a component of each class, students can always know how they’re doing. “I break things down into small bits and students do it,” explained Heath Van Horn. “The kids understand they have to do the assignments and by doing them, they learn the subject.”
In addition to regular IT instruction and certifications, Heath Van Horn and the department’s other IT instructors have collaborated to create two new IT degrees: an associate’s degree in Cyber Operations with CompTIA A+ and Network+, and a bachelor’s degree in Cyber Operations Management with CompTIA Security+ and Linux+.
Things were running smoothly at SUNY Delhi until the COVID pandemic put a halt to in-person learning. Like teachers everywhere, Heath Van Horn changed his teaching methods overnight, requiring sacrifices from his family. “I took over our living room, much to my wife’s displeasure,” he said. “I put up a green screen, made videos and livestreamed every lesson and anything else to help my students learn.”
Remote learning didn’t go as well as he expected. Students did follow along online and regularly contacted him through the communication platform Slack, but without hands-on instruction, learning suffered, and pass rates suffered a decline.
Heath Van Horn is happy to once again be teaching in the classroom but isn’t taking any chances with another shutdown. Last summer, at his wife’s insistence, he built a new garage with an upstairs office for teaching IT. “It’s a great space, 400 square feet of IT,” he said.
Even without the threat of a potential shutdown, teaching is a challenging job. Fortunately, IT instructors are a hardy breed and Heath Van Horn is an energetic problem solver. With the support of school administration, colleagues, and his family, Heath Van Horn will continue preparing SUNY Delhi students for their future IT careers for a long time to come.