A new initiative, Girls Go CyberStart was announced by Gov. Phil Scott last month as a gateway for young women to explore the different opportunities in the cyber security field.
The program is a partnership between Vermont, other states and the SANS Technology Institute, a global leader in cyber security training.
The SANS Institute works to develop people with the skills to protect governmental, military and commercial institutions from cyber attacks.
“This program will provide a valuable experience for those who participate. You can’t figure out what you like or don’t like until you try it. This program builds a pipeline for young women,” said Jay Ramsey, state director of career technical education for the Vermont Agency of Education.
Through the Girls Go CyberStart program, Vermont high school girls attending grades 9-12, public, private or home-schooled, will participate in an online game at no cost. The game will run Feb. 20 to 25. No prior experience with information technology or cyber security is required, just access to a computer and an internet connection.
“The game the girls will be participating in is not to determine how good they are or if they are already good. It’s about how good they can be. It’s a teaching game. It’s not a yes/no answer game, rather solving problems — puzzles,” said Alan Paller, principal coordinator at SANS Institute, president for SANS Technology Institute and its director of research.
The game is played in teams of one to four members who attend the same school. The challenges include cryptography, which is the art of writing code; web attacks; website structure; forensics, which is the examination of digital media; and programming (mainly on Python and Linux systems).
“I’ve been given the opportunity to try out the game. It’s fun and addicting! You go in as an agent. It’s built like a building with different floors and rooms. When you enter the game, you enter on the ground floor, and each room on that floor is filled with problems. When you solve all the problems in each room on each floor, you move up floors and the rooms get more complicated,” said Jessica Stolz, deputy advisor for the Vermont Homeland Security Unit in Waterbury. “On the front end, one of the first problems I was faced with was security information about a fictitious person. I was given a security question similar to, ‘what is the name of the person’s favorite pet?’ When you solve the answer you ‘win’ that room and gain points. On the back end, once the problem is solved the game gives information on how to make your own personal passwords more secure. You’re solving crime. You’re solving mysteries.”
The goal of Girls Go CyberStart is to attract and retain, said Paller.
“Girls Go CyberStart is a noncompetitive program between genders, yet it is for girls only,” Paller said. “We (at SANS) have found that girls have had all sorts of opportunities, but they think or say, ‘I thought it was a field for boys.’”
In 2017, the SANS Institute led its first program, CyberStart, designed to spark the interest of the next generation of cyber-security professionals while discovering skilled youth. The summer 2017 CyberStart program provided an opportunity for nearly 3,500 students in seven states, and only seven percent of participating students were young women. As a result, Girls Go CyberStart was designed specifically for high school girls.
“To address this issue of equity — the gender that fills most positions in the field of cyber security is usually male. So, we’re interested in how to get women in this field using systematic aspects — that percent from getting women into fields that are high skilled, high wage, and high demand,” said Ramsey. “We break it down to why there are more men than woman filling the pipeline of qualified candidates.”
“Cyber security is a very rewarding and dynamic field, where you are constantly contributing to the betterment of the society and at the same time, always learning,” said Ambareen Siraj, founder and director of the Women in Cybersecurity organization, and a professor at Tennessee Tech University. “Women mostly want careers that help society. But not only women, we want to show all how they can make an impact on how we live our lives. We want to involve everyone: of all genders, race, skill, etc. We want to get the word out to students, parents and teachers.”
Roughly 11 percent of the cyber security workforce is comprised of women, and a range of efforts are underway seeking positive change and progress in recruiting girls and women into the field.
“Just recently I had three female interns, which is a lot, considering a majority of my interns are male at all times. If we can get (women) thinking about a career in cyber security by providing a game or a camp — to give them a chance to say, ‘I can do this’ and lead them down the path of being successful in this industry, I believe that will make a big difference,” said Dr. Heather Roszkowski, network chief information security officer at the University of Vermont Health Network.
Girls Go CyberStart will take place in 17 states and territories and is limited to the first 10,000 girls with completed team registrations by Feb. 16.
The first-place prize winner gets an all-expenses-paid trip to the 2018 Women in CyberSecurity Conference, March 23 and 24, in Chicago.
“I don’t see enough girls in my classroom. There have been times when I was the only woman. My goal — our goal — is to recruit, retain and advance. Through the WiCyS Conference and community, we are showing women that they can equally contribute alongside of men. We are bringing all under one roof, and hopefully their sense of isolation (does) not prevail when they see themselves as part of the bigger community and meet peers, role models and mentors like them,” Siraj said.
Learn more at www.girlsgocyberstart.com.