CyberChallenge attracts next cadre of experts

A new program will target high school students in the government\'s search for the next generation of cyber warriors. Lawmakers hope the U.S. Cyber Challenge wi...

By Meg Beasley
Federal News Radio

The U.S. Cyber Challenge will launch a new initiative Tuesday aimed at helping high school students become the next generation of cyber warriors.

The program, Cyber Foundations, is one of several competition-style education and recruiting programs that make up the U.S. Cyber Challenge (USCC). It will be conducted in collaboration with the SANS Institute, which developed the curriculum.

USCC is a nationwide online contest to identify talented individuals with the skills to pursue advanced education and job opportunities in the cybersecurity field. Currently USCC has programs geared toward teams of high school students, college students and professionals already in the workforce. Cyber Foundations is different in that it is tailored for individual high school students.

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said the new program is important because not all schools have the organization of a team with a coach and support structure.

“The schools that already have the technical programs aren’t the only places you find these very bright kids,” said Paller. “This way all American kids have the opportunity to take advantage of the Cyber Challenge.”

He said one of the winners of another competition was a 16-year-old who attended a high school with no computer classes at all.

USCC is run by the not-for-profit Center for Internet Security. It is a series of competitions that provide participants with educational tutorials about the three key areas of effective cybersecurity: networking, operating systems and system administration.

After several weeks of online learning and practice problems, participants take a series of quizzes to determine the winners. Top scorers earn recognition and prizes.

Under Cyber Foundations, the Navy has pledged to furnish full four-year scholarships for winners. Paller said details about the scholarships have not yet been finalized.

Several states, including California, Maryland, Rhode Island, Texas, Minnesota and Delaware, have tested Cyber Foundations through pilot programs. It will be launched in schools nationwide soon.

Paller said Cyber Foundations is an effective program because the students have fun participating in a competition and they reap more lasting benefits.

“This is not just a fun learning experience,” Paller said. “It gives a real boost to their collegiate opportunities. And even more important to some of the kids is the skills they are being taught are some of the most sought after in industry.”

Paller said the country needs about 20,000 cyber security personnel who can identify, stop and prevent cyber attacks. He estimated that there are currently only about 1,000 such experts.

A group of lawmakers called the Congressional Cyber Caucus have held several hearings over the past three years to address this very problem. Their efforts paid off last June when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed comprehensive cyber security legislation, the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010 (S.3480).

Sponsored by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the legislation aims to modernize, strengthen and coordinate the security of the federal civilian and private sector critical infrastructure networks.

“In order to address the growing cyber security challenges facing our increasingly technology dependent society, we must focus on encouraging the next generation of Americans to develop the technology skills necessary to defend our country in this emerging battlefield,” stated Carper in a press release. “This competition enables our students to gain vital technology skills while vying for awards, recognitions and a competitive edge in educational and job opportunities in the cyber security field.”

The deadline for entry in this year’s competition is Feb. 18. The quizzes will take place in March and April and the winners will be announced on April 30.

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