COVID-19 has created many challenges for institutions organizing summer camps and meetings where youth traditionally gather to take advantage of learning during the long summer break. For the Cybersecurity Education Research and Outreach Center (CEROC) at Tennessee Tech, this challenge came when they had to cancel their awarded 2020 GenCyber student camp with NSA directives. The camp historically brought together high school students from across the state to participate in a week of cybersecurity activities such as Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions, cybersecurity exercises, and career option/professional development discussions. However, with support from the College of Engineering, CEROC decided to move forward with their own initiative this summer – a time which is especially challenging to students with many summer opportunities being cancelled.
The Virtual Cyber Discovery camp (https://www.tntech.edu/ceroc/outreach/cyber_discovery_camp.php), which was organized to be delivered via Zoom is a combination of elements from past GenCyber camps, GenCyber on Wheels mobile expeditions, and on-site cyber discovery days featuring activities and exercises developed at CEROC by its leadership and student ambassadors. Two camps were planned: one in June and one in July, and both to be conducted across three half-day adventures. Students completing all three days of the camp would be given a certificate from CEROC. The June 2020 camp was attended by fifty high school students and a group of ten high-performing students won a Raspberry Pi 4 single board computer for excellence in multiple events. While there is always a desire to deliver face-to-face camp opportunities, the Virtual Cyber Discovery camp provided a first of its kind opportunity to reach out to a larger audience providing an engaging opportunity for students that might otherwise would have had no camp opportunities due to COVID-19 cancellations.
Rather than just working with high school students in the state of Tennessee, this year’s virtual camp also featured students from coast to coast including an international student who participated from their home country at 1:30am local time. Among the states represented were Alabama, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia. With multiple grade level represented, the bulk of the students were in the 10th – 12th grade with an equal distribution of genders represented. For some of the students, the camp was their first exposure to cybersecurity topics at that depth.
CTFs were among the most popular parts of the camp. The students engaged in traditional and virtual unplugged versions of the cyber capture the flag games. Cyber Jeopardy (fashioned after the popular game show) was also a hit among the participants. While all of the activities provided entertainment and exposure to cybersecurity concepts, the cybersecurity professional and student panels made a significant impact on the participants providing insights into cybersecurity careers and pathways. These panels consisted of past and current cybersecurity students from Tennessee Tech’s Computer Science program. Many of the panelist had been or were current CyberCorps SFS or Department of Defense Cyber Scholarship program participants.
Evidence of this impact came in many forms. One of the female student participants sent this message to one of the lead camp counselors after the conclusion of the camp:
“Thank you for organizing the Tennessee Tech Cyber Camp last week. It was my first experience participating in a CTF, and I learned so much about cybersecurity concepts. I am a rising high school senior and will definitely consider studying cybersecurity in college after this camp.“
Marena Soulet, one of the lead camp counselors and a CyberCorps SFS scholar, noted “I can say that ‘yes’, the virtual camp did bring its own set of challenges. Being in front of a camera in your home is different from physically being in a room where the activities are occurring. Ice breakers in the early part of the camp were crucial to getting the students to engage. We saw the teams grow together each day. Then, after the conclusion of the camp, I got a message from one of the students. She said that because of the camp experience, she was considering cyber as a path of study and career. It was at that point that it all became very real to me. Something incredible happened during that camp. I am super excited to see what happens during our July camp!“
Dr. Ambareen Siraj, CEROC’s director, commenting on the camp’s rollout, “This summer we had to do something for the youth who are challenged by the COVID-19 situation at large and that’s why the virtual camp. In the camp, what these students experienced in three half-days is not all that different from what the workforce is experiencing through telecommuting. Aside from acquiring cybersecurity knowledge/experience during the camp, these kids gained some valuable engagement skills which will help them in future jobs, including the ability to work remotely as a member of a team. I am very proud of our students/counselors teamwork and dedication to making an incredible camp happen. “
CEROC will be offering a second camp on July 21st – 23rd meeting 1:00pm – 4:30pm each day. 100 high school students are expected to attend the camp. Building on the experience of the June camp, the July camp is expected to bring cybersecurity to youth in a more fun and engaging manner.
CEROC: Cybersecurity Education, Research and Outreach Center at Tennessee Tech University, under the direction of Dr. Ambareen Siraj, is a center of excellence in the College of Engineering focused on informal education programs; research in emerging cybersecurity topics; and outreach programs to stakeholders in academia, government and industry. CEROC is an NSA-accredited Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education (CAE-CDE), host of the first and largest CyberCorps SFS program in the State of Tennessee, and host of the only DoD Cyber Scholarship program site in the state placing the center among the top tier of such centers in the nation. CEROC, via Dr. Siraj’s work, is also the founding group for the Women in Cybersecurity initiative, the largest of its type focusing on enhancing diversity within the cybersecurity workforce. More information about CEROC and its programs can be found at https://www.tntech.edu/ceroc or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. CEROC can also be found on social media at Facebook / Twitter / Instagram: TNTechCEROC and LinkedIn at https://linkedin.com/company/TNTechCEROC.