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Summer camps across the country seek to build the next generation of cybersecurity experts

05/02/2015 12:08 EDT | Updated 05/02/2016 05:12 EDT
MONTPELIER, Vt. - At Vermont's Norwich University, 20 high school students will build computers they'll be able to take home. At Dakota State University in South Dakota, about 200 students will learn about programming. In Southern California, 250 middle school Girl Scouts will be given tiny computers, the chance to fly drones and earn special patches.

And none of the children or their parents will have to pay a cent.

The camps are part of an expanding but modestly funded program called GenCyber that is funded by the National Science Foundation and National Security Agency. The agencies are taking the long view in fulfilling an insatiable need for cybersecurity experts, both in government and private industry, by teaching children about the threats that can be found online, as well the basics of defence and how to make sure they don't misuse the information they are collecting.

"In order to be really cyber aware, or be ready for the next wave of the cybersecurity workforce, a student, high school, college or new grad entering the workforce really needs to be fundamentally strong in those principles and programming," said Josh Pauli, an associate professor at Dakota State who will oversee this summer's program, expected to draw 200 students to the Madison, South Dakota, campus. "We're trying to bake it in early when these kids are 15, 16, 17 years old."

Last year, the NSA and NSF collaborated on a pilot program that ran six such summer camps across the country, for both children and teachers. They set a goal of 30 for this summer, but demand was so great there are 43 at a cost of about $4 million, said Steven LaFountain, the dean of the College of Cyber at the National Security Agency, who is credited by many with conceiving the idea.

LaFountain said that his original goal was to get to 200 camps by 2020, but that demand is so great it could happen sooner.

The camps vary in length; some are day camps, some sleepover. There are different camps for high school and middle school. Some are just for girls, some just boys, some mixed. Some camps are just for teachers.

Victor Piotrowski, the lead program director of the CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program run by the National Science Foundation, said the camps are part of a broader effort by the federal government to attract people to cybersecurity at a time when, as he put it, the unemployment rate in that workforce is zero.

"Every company now has it on its radar, and everybody wants to hire computer science specialists, and unfortunately we don't have the capacity," Piotrowski said.

The 20 high school students who will attend the camp at Norwich, which is nationally recognized for its cybersecurity programs, will build their own computers, learn about attacking and defending networks, and hear from speakers, said Peter Stephenson, the director of the school's Center for Advanced Computing and Digital Forensics.

"Obviously, the government is hoping, especially the NSA, is hoping that they'll be able to take advantage of some of these students as they progress, but there's no requirement here that these students move on to government," Stephenson said.

Dakota State had 350 applications for 200 spots this summer, Pauli said.

Claire Jefferson-Glipa, of the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio, east of Los Angeles, said troops were looking for ways to give girls from low-income areas an edge. She cold-called Tony Coulson, the director of the Cyber Security Center at California State University, San Bernardino, after hearing about the school's cyber programs.

Last December, 300 girls went to the school for a one-day workshop called "Cyber Pathways for Middle School Girls." It was so successful they put together the weeklong program that will be held there next month.

The girls will receive small computers they can take home. They will learn how to build and create firewalls and spend time taking apart electronic equipment. They'll also fly drones.

"It will be a fun cat-and-mouse game between teams, where one team will take a turn flying the drone and the others will take turns trying to take control over those drones," Jefferson-Glipa said.

Sophianna Satiana, a seventh-grade Cadette Girl Scout from Riverside County who got her first exposure to cybersecurity at the December workshop, said the workshop helped her become aware of the need for such protections.

She plans to attend the summer camp but said she didn't know if she'd go into cyber security when she grows up.

"I guess I really want to learn how to protect myself and stay safe," she said.

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Online:

GenCyber: http://gen-cyber.info/

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