Learning Cybersecurity: Competitions and Workshops for Teens

CyberPatriot

Cybersecurity is a booming field of computer science and with the constant and growing nature of cyber attacks, the need for cybersecurity professionals is becoming acute. 

The Department of Homeland Security describes cybersecurity as a two-part approach: the proactive protection of systems and data from hackers, and the ongoing practice of ensuring the security of information. In addition to being an excellent career choice, cybersecurity is fun! If your teen loves puzzles and logic problems, exploring cybersecurity could be a great introduction to computer science, potentially leading to an intellectually satisfying profession that will offer them the choice of many different work settings and career paths.

CyberPatriot
CyberPatriot

But even to a 21st-century digital native, this may not sound like an appealing profession—or it may seem dauntingly technical and inaccessible. Yet, as this excellent graphic about cybersecurity jobs courtesy of the SANS Institute explains, there’s a variety of positions within cybersecurity, offering a fit for many different working styles, personality types, and interests. 

How can teens be introduced to cybersecurity early enough to decide whether it’s a subject they want to study in college and a career they want to pursue? 

Today’s article will highlight some different ways for teens to learn about cybersecurity during the school year. This is a chance for students to explore this exciting and rapidly growing area of computer science before heading to college; it’s also an engaging and intellectually challenging way to test their skills and compete against other students and teams. In particular, I feature the premier US program, CyberPatriot, the nation’s largest youth cyber defense competition. The article will also cover cybersecurity competitions from CyberStart America and CYBER.ORG, as well as workshops for middle school girls from TechGirlz. 

CyberPatriot 

CyberPatriot is the National Youth Cyber Education Program, a competition created by the Air Force Association (AFA) to inspire students toward careers in cybersecurity or other STEM disciplines critical to our nation’s future. CyberPatriot is designed for any student, regardless of prior cybersecurity knowledge. 

The competition is a popular after-school activity for middle and high school students—last year, 6,750 teams registered for the competition! Most students compete as part of a team at their school, where a coach (usually a teacher) registers the team and recruits students to participate. However, the competition is also open to groups outside of school (homeschool co-ops, scouting units, 4-H clubs, Boys and Girls Clubs, STEM programs, church groups, etc.). As long as the students on a given team are affiliated with a youth organization, and the team has an adult coach, they are eligible to compete. Teams comprise two to six student competitors, an adult coach, technical mentor(s), and adult team assistant(s). 

Training materials are made available to the coaches who register teams for the competition. The AFA also offers virtual operating systems filled with cybersecurity vulnerabilities as practice tools leading up to the competition. 

Except for the finals, all rounds of competition take place online. Teams may meet at and compete from any location – classroom, computer lab, public library, home, etc. Students are challenged to find and fix cybersecurity vulnerabilities in virtual operating systems. Each team has two challenges during their six-hour competition period. Teams are scored on how secure they make the system. Teams advance through the online round of competition, and the best advance to the in-person National Finals Competition.

If your teen is interested in participating, team registration runs from April through mid-October. Practice and training rounds run from May-October. Official competitions take place on specified weekends throughout the school year from November to February and the National Finals Competition is held in the spring. Visit uscyberpatriot.org for the details.

“Some students join CyberPatriot because they already know they want to pursue education or a career in cybersecurity, but others join because they are interested to learn more. It’s amazing to see the shift in these students from the start of the competition to the end — they come in unsure of their abilities and leave with strong confidence in what they’ve learned and what they are able to achieve. They find a new passion for something they maybe never would have considered had it not been for the program.” —Rebecca Dalton, Director of Program Engagement, CyberPatriot

 

CyberStart America

If your child particularly enjoys solving puzzles and playing games, CyberStart America may be a fun and instructive introduction to cybersecurity. CyberStart America is a free, immersive online learning platform for high school students, who are challenged to solve the kinds of problems and puzzles that confront professionals in computer science or cybersecurity. Students learn skills like password cracking, forensics, coding in Python, and code breaking, all by solving fun, real-world cyber challenges. Experience or previous technical coursework is not necessary; users learn everything they need to know within each game, often from videos embedded within the game. 

And the payoff is greater than just the fun and interesting challenge of the puzzles: High scoring players in CyberStart America automatically qualify for the National Cyber Scholarship program, where they can earn life-changing recognition and college scholarship opportunities.

Sponsored by SANS, CyberStart America started out by offering girls-only competitions and training under the name Girls Go CyberStart. However, they have recently broadened their scope to include all high school students, changing their name accordingly. Its mission is “to build a US national pipeline for talented students to enter the cybersecurity workforce.”

“CyberStart REALLY made a big impact on my daughter! The first year, she had zero experience in computer coding or cybersecurity. After participating, she decided to take AP Computer Science A and now she won a summer internship at the NJ Cyber Security Office!”—Parent of CyberStart student

 

Participation runs during the school year and students can register their team on CyberStart America’s website. Each team must be confirmed by a teacher or an adult advisor. Playing begins November 15, 2020 and more details are being added to the website this month. Visit cyberstartamerica.org to learn more. 

CYBER.ORG 

CYBER.ORG is a platform for teachers created on the belief that “K-12 cyber education is the key to solving the cyber workforce shortage.” In addition to a wealth of resources for teachers, it sponsors free Capture the Flag competitions to train students on encryption, hacking, and overall cybersecurity problems, in much the way that real-world cybersecurity teams train. 

Using the Capture the Flag platform, the individual student or team of students is presented with several categories of challenges and questions. They select a category and a challenge that is scored based on difficulty, collecting points for correct answers. Most Capture the Flag competitions last between a few days to a week, providing ample time for students to solve the challenges. Students can participate in the classroom or on their own at home. To create an account and find upcoming challenges, visit cyber.org/career-exploration/camps-and-competitions.

TechGirlz 

TechGirlz is a volunteer-driven, non-profit program whose mission is to inspire middle school girls to explore all the possibilities in technology. They accomplish this mission by providing free, hands-on, project-based workshops (TechShopz) and camps (TechCampz), led by volunteers, for girls in grades 5-8, virtually or in person. The wide variety of topics offered helps girls understand that working in tech can be more than just coding. And they learn that no matter what they have an interest in, there is likely something in tech for them. TechGirlz has made a notable impact with its participants—82% of girls who have attended a workshop have changed their minds, in a positive way, about a potential career in technology. 

Among the TechShopz offerings are seven workshops and one TechCamp teaching different aspects of cybersecurity including: 

These workshops and camps not only teach students about several different facts of cybersecurity, they also encourage responsible online behavior. The more the participants learn about how computers and the internet work and the different ways that people and information can be kept safe online, the more careful they become with their own online interactions. View and register for upcoming workshops.

In recognition of Cybersecurity Awareness Month, TechGirlz, its volunteers, and partner organizations are running cybersecurity TechShopz in October. 

Other Ways to Explore Cybersecurity

Summer is a great time to explore cybersecurity. While it may feel early to be thinking about next summer, this might be a good time to consider one of the high-quality cybersecurity summer camps for your teen. These summer experiences help students explore the field and learn foundational principles and skills before they enter college. 

The three largest cybersecurity summer camps, AFA CyberCamps, GenCyber, and iD Tech, are offered on college campuses and other locations all over the country, and vary widely in price (one is free of charge). Read more about the camps

Some universities and colleges offer pre-college cybersecurity summer programs. For example, NYU and the University of Maryland offer programs. University-based programs have the added benefit of giving your teen experience being on a college campus and talking with college students, helping them prepare for their college search process. 

The best way to learn about these programs is to contact your local university’s computer science department and inquire about their cybersecurity offerings for high school students. This is also a good opportunity to ask about their curriculum, type of degrees offered, professors, and their success at career placement. Not only will you learn about their program, your inquiry will demonstrate your interest and curiosity about the university and what they have to offer.

Final Thoughts

Cybersecurity may sound like a highly technical field that requires years of college-level coursework and development of deep skills and experience (and for some cybersecurity careers, this is the case). Yet there are many ways for teens to get involved, learn about the many facets of the field, and get some hands-on training that is both fun and challenging. For a teen interested in tech, a cybersecurity after-school or summer program may help to introduce potential academic and career paths they hadn’t considered, and give them new skills that are transferable to other tech domains even if they don’t choose cybersecurity as a direction. 

Many national agencies like the Air Force, National Science Foundation, and National Security Agency are keen to interest students in this field and offer support to schools and other organizations that want to run programs in cybersecurity. Check with your school to see if it offers any programs or competitions, and if not—consider taking advantage of those resources and starting your own!

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