Government agencies and colleges are working together on a couple of the nation’s big technical challenges: securing computer networks and getting kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This summer, more than 100 free GenCyber camps will be opened around the nation for hundreds of middle and high school students who want to learn about cybersecurity.
The National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are again teaming up to fund camps run by colleges in most states and Puerto Rico. Colleges can get up grants of up to $100,000 to operate the five-day summer camps, which often include housing — all at no cost to students. The government agencies founded the program to meet a number of goals.
“On the security side, there are two goals, teaching safe online behavior and increasing involvement in cybersecurity work,” said Kelly Corwin, a computer science instructor who’s managing the GenCyber program at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SDSMT). “That doesn’t mean we expect students to get degrees in cybersecurity and go into it for a career. We need people who are aware of cybersecurity in all sorts of businesses.”
GenCyber camps also aim to increase diversity in technology. The SDSMT camp is for about 30 middle school girls. A program a few hundred miles away at Dakota State University (DSU) will host about 120 middle school girls. DSU, which was one of the pilot schools when the GenCyber program started five years ago, also runs a co-ed camp for 300 high school students.
The NSA/NSF program also provides free training for the instructors who run the camps. DSU is one of 33 schools that will hold camps that train the course teachers. All programs are closely monitored by NSA and NSF.
“They put together evaluation teams made of educational experts who visit each camp,” Corwin said. “It’s a huge team that covers all the camps. They usually spend a full day at the camp.”
Some colleges simply use a first come, first served enrollment model. Others do some selection, in part to avoid getting students who attend mostly because their parents like terms like “free” and “week-long.” Though most students come from the surrounding region, that’s not always the case. The first SDSMT GenCyber camp, held last year, attracted two students from out of state. DSU’s larger camps have earned even more national interest.
“Over the past four years, the high school co-ed camp has had students from more than 40 of the states,” said Robert Honomichl, an instructor who heads the DSU camp. “Many of our campers are returners, and we keep in touch with them throughout the year through different activities.”
The teacher camps, which are much smaller than those for students, can also pull instructors from outside the area. DSU’s week-long instructors camp has attracted teachers from North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Florida.
The student programs at SDSMT and DSU both include housing accommodations, so the programs can be structured differently than day camps. Students can get more training while still having time for special interests and fun outings.
“Our sessions are set up like a college schedule,” Corwin said. “We have core classes in the morning and electives in the afternoon. We have field trips in the evening. We’re in the Black Hills, so going to Mt. Rushmore is definitely on the agenda.”
Throughout the nation, programs have different goals. At some colleges, instructors aim to teach students how to be safer on the Web. Others strive to get attendees more interested in technical fields and realize that there are a range of career opportunities, particularly in cybersecurity. Still others are more focused on actively guiding students into cybersecurity fields. DSU has been successful in getting learners excited enough to follow through in the field and achieve solid success.
“Students who have attended camp have gone on to receive great scholarships like our Cyber Corps scholarship, internships with the NSA, and some were on the winning cybersecurity teams in a variety of competitions,” Honomichl said. “As to a direct impact on a class, the students that have attended a camp have a good ground level understanding of many of the courses they will take in the first couple years of college. It just helps them to be more aware and have a better understanding of what they are going to college for.”
Governmental managers appear to feel that feedback like that warrants expansion of the program. After the first couple years to prove the concept, the ramp up began in earnest. From 2015 to 2016, funding for the camps drove a tripling in the number of GenCyber programs, hitting 133. They hope to expand to 200 GenCyber camps by 2020. You can find out more about the GenCyber program at https://www.gen-cyber.com
Terry Costlow has written about technology since the days of the 6 Mbyte hard drive. He’s contributed regularly to EE Times, Automation World, Automotive Engineering International, and IEEE Spectrum, as well as consumer publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Magazine and the Portland Oregonian.