UNK summer camp inspires next generation of cybersecurity professionals
KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - How important are cybersecurity specialists?
Ask the U.S. Department of Energy, British Airways, University System of Georgia and countless other government agencies, public organizations and major corporations that were impacted by a recent global cyberattack.
Orchestrated by a Russian ransomware group, the attack targeted users of a popular file-transfer service, disrupting day-to-day operations and putting sensitive data at risk. It’s the latest example of a growing national security threat.
“We all know there’s hacking going on continually. Companies are losing money because they’re getting attacked, yet there are lots of unfilled cybersecurity jobs because people don’t have this skill set,” said Angela Hollman, an associate professor in the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Department of Cyber Systems.
Currently, there are about 660,000 open cybersecurity jobs in the U.S., including around 4,700 in Nebraska, according to CyberSeek, a cybersecurity workforce analytics platform. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the number of cybersecurity positions will grow by 35 percent between 2021 and 2031, creating even more demand for these professionals as businesses and organizations try to stay ahead of hackers and organized crime groups.
“Cybersecurity workers protect our most important and private information, from bank accounts to sensitive military communications. However, there is a dangerous shortage of cybersecurity workers in the United States that puts our digital privacy and infrastructure at risk,” CyberSeek notes.
To close this talent gap, UNK hosts an annual summer camp for middle schoolers who want to learn more about technology and cybersecurity. About 50 students entering grades six through nine are attending this year’s Super GenCyber Girls Camp, a weeklong event where they can explore this exciting world through a variety of lessons and hands-on activities.
“Starting in middle school, that’s when kids are deciding what they want to do,” said Hollman, the camp’s director. “We need to open their minds a little bit and show them cybersecurity is a really interesting field with a lot of different opportunities.”
Based on the six GenCyber Cybersecurity Concepts – confidentiality, integrity, availability, thinking like an adversary, defense in depth and keeping it simple – the camp curriculum incorporates real-world techniques alongside fun STEM activities such as computer programming, coding, cipher challenges and escape rooms. Participants utilize a workshop and lab inside Discovery Hall, a state-of-the-art STEM facility that opened in fall 2020.
Payton Beck, a 13-year-old from Kearney, came to the camp because she really enjoys coding and “other tech stuff.” She’s done some coding at Sunrise Middle School, but this is an opportunity to expand that knowledge.
Beck wants to study computer science in college; however, she hasn’t picked a specific profession to pursue yet.
“The thing I enjoy the most about this camp is learning to use your voice and growing in confidence,” the soon-to-be eighth grader said. “I think it’s a great place for young girls to learn how to use their voices.”
All GenCyber camps are offered at no cost to participants, with funding provided by the National Security Agency and National Science Foundation. The UNK event is organized specifically for girls, encouraging them to enter this historically male-dominated profession.
“When we have a camp of all girls, I feel like it gives them an equal opportunity to engage,” Hollman said. “I want them to know this is a field that’s open to them.”
Beck shared a similar message.
“You can do whatever you want to do,” she said, “and don’t let anybody stop you.”
UNK has hosted the Super GenCyber Girls Camp since 2019. There’s another camp next week for current and future teachers who want to learn more about STEM and cybersecurity instruction.
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