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Cybersecurity Target Acquired: Local Teens

The only thing standing between a critical computing system and a nefarious hacker is you, a cybersecurity guru. Without your unwavering dedication, the entire system can be breached. The damage can range from data and financial losses to the crippling of an entire U.S. industry. Will you keep us safe?

Seems like a lot of pressure to put on a teenager, but it’s the scenario that kids in Pitt’s AFA CyberCamp tackle during a week of fun, learning, and personal challenge. Coordinated through the Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security (Pitt Cyber) and Pitt Information Technology, CyberCamp is based on the Air Force Association CyberPatriot curriculum. For Pitt Cyber, the program is about more than giving tech-minded high schoolers a good time while exposing them to cybersecurity concepts. It’s also about reaching out to a diverse group of students to raise awareness and create a path to cybersecurity careers, which also helps develop Western PA’s tech industry pipeline.

Expanding the Reach of Tech

For underprivileged kids with limited access to technology and girls trying to overcome the gender gap in computing, a career in IT can seem unattainable. CyberCamp is trying to change that. Each year, it strives to bridge the digital divide by attracting a diverse set of students and staff. Kate Ulreich, IT consultant for Pitt Cyber and coordinator of the annual summer program, says, “We want every single student who attends CyberCamp to be able to see themselves in at least one of the instructors or mentors they meet through the program.”

Championed by Pitt Cyber’s founding director David Hickton, CyberCamp is now in its fifth year. The free camp is funded through generous sponsorships from AT&T, the Grable Foundation, Microsoft, and UPMC Women in IT. In addition, many of Pitt IT’s best volunteer as instructors, mentors, and speakers. Ulreich is thrilled that this year’s staff will be its most diverse yet.

When enrollment opens, the camp fills up fast. (Last year, all of the available spots were filled within 24 hours!) This poses a challenge for ensuring that underserved communities who may not be aware of the camp have a chance to participate. So this year, Ulreich is working with new partners to get the word out early, including Pitt’s Community Engagement Centers in Homewood and the Hill District, the United Way of Southwestern PA, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western PA. Up to 25% of the 100 camp slots will be available to students working with these organizations during a special early registration period, while the remaining slots will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

A Labor of Love

Kim Getz, director of IT for Pitt Law, has been involved with CyberCamp since its inception. As a self-described kid at heart, Getz loves working with the kids. “I love seeing students’ faces light up when they learn something new” she explains.  She particularly values being a role model for a career that most of them aren’t exposed to in school, especially female students. “As a woman in a non-traditional field, it’s important for young girls to see that they can also have a job in IT. For the last two years, I’ve worked with a young woman who decided that this was the career for her. That is so rewarding.”

Ollie Green, Pitt IT’s new chief information security officer, jumped at the chance to participate in the career panel, one of the most popular events of CyberCamp. Cybersecurity is the central focus of his work, and he’s thrilled to help inspire tomorrow’s cyber-experts to deal with whatever threats emerge. “As the new CISO, I have a deep commitment to being involved in such great initiatives like CyberCamp!  We are fortunate to have such great support from external and internal partners, and I hope I can add real value through my involvement.”

Many CyberCamp instructors get hooked! Jay Graham, enterprise architect for Pitt IT, is coming back for his third year leading the Advanced Camp. “I’ll do this every year until I retire,” Graham declares. “Heck, I’ll probably keep doing it even after I retire,” he adds, laughing. Graham hopes that the advanced camp gives student a realistic glimpse into the rewarding and challenging field of cybersecurity. “The CyberPatriot program emphasizes technology, but also focuses on understanding the responsibilities and personality needed for a successful career in cybersecurity. As leaders, we need to cultivate a future workforce that can step out of their cap and gown into this field,” he says.

Inspired to Continue

Based on the reaction of past students, volunteers shouldn’t doubt they have a significant impact on the campers. Even moving last year’s camp to Zoom due to the pandemic didn’t lessen campers’ enthusiasm. Many kids have only basic familiarity with computers when they sign up, but by the end of the week, they are able to identify and correct system vulnerabilities.

In the post-camp survey that participants complete, 98% said their knowledge increased, with 78% saying that attending the camp made them more likely to pursue a career in technology. “Before this camp I had no experience with cybersecurity. I now feel confident in my abilities," raved one student, with another participant describing it as, “a great experience, even through the virtual format.”

Ulreich is excited to see how CyberCamp impacts the region’s IT workforce in the long run. “We’re in our fifth year, and some of our first campers are now in college or trade school, pursuing a career in technology,” she notes. “Some CyberCamp alumni may soon become Pitt alumni!”

CyberCamp students are certainly eager to pick up the mantle. As one student noted last year, “STEM careers are in high demand, so it's up to our generation to make sure the demand is met."

-- By Karen Beaudway, Pitt IT Blogger