National Security Agency funds UC Berkeley cybersecurity summer camp for high school students

Ariel Hayat/Senior Staff

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National Security Agency staff will visit a camp developed to teach high school students about cybersecurity — hosted for the first time this year by UC Berkeley — this week to evaluate the program and decide whether to continue its funding.

The camp, called CY-BEAR, is part of a system of 43 camps funded by the NSA and the National Science Foundation to fill the “very large” shortage of about 1 million cybersecurity workers needed in both government and industry, according to Steven LaFountain, dean of the NSA’s College of Cyber, a cybersecurity training organization. The program, called GenCyber, began with six camps in 2014 and has since expanded to 18 states and 29 universities.

“I think it’s great to see these kinds of camps going after kids in high school,” said David Wagner, a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley. “Right now, we’re missing a lot of students — who could be really successful in the field and have really rewarding careers — who never get exposed.”

LaFountain said that it was up to the universities to submit their own camp proposals and curricula and that GenCyber imposed only a few general guidelines. One requirement was that all camps be free for all students.

“We didn’t want any student who might be interested in learning more about cybersecurity to be prevented from doing so due to any economic barrier,” LaFountain said.

The UC Berkeley camp seeks to engage local high school students who don’t have access to computer science education, according to Aimee Tabor, education director for UC Berkeley’s Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology, which Tabor said aims to engage underrepresented minorities and women.

The students of the camp are 55 percent female and 64 percent underrepresented minorities. Fifty percent of the students’ fathers and 36 percent of their mothers have less than an associate degree, according to Tabor.

Abril Ortega, 16, attends the camp and is a student at Making Waves Academy, a college preparatory charter school in Richmond aimed at enrolling low-income students. She said her school does not offer any teacher-led computer science programs, which Wagner said is common. Ortega’s only exposure to the field before attending CY-BEAR was through a friend’s club.

“(CY-BEAR) made it seem more achievable,” Ortega said of her goal to earn a computer science degree. She added that aspiring to be a female Mexican American in a field dominated by white men “makes me feel proud.”

The camp enrolls 22 students and employs one graduate student instructor and five undergraduate mentors from UC Berkeley. The curriculum includes online privacy, python coding and cybersecurity, and an introduction to applying to college and preparing for a technical major.

Women and certain ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in computer science, according to Linda Sax of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. The gender gap is “particularly stark,” with women earning only 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees, she said.

According to Jane Margolis, also of UCLA’s school of education, the gap is perpetuated because recruiters for computer science jobs tend to seek people who are similar to them, and because the lack of underrepresented minority and women computer scientists makes it difficult for such students to picture themselves and feel welcome in the field.

CY-BEAR began June 28 and will conclude July 24. Tabor expects to hear back from the NSA in late July or early August about continuing the program.

Contact Sally Littlefield at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @slittlefield3.