Cybersecurity Summer School: NYU Teaches High School Girls Security Tech
Cyber Security Awareness Week, or CSAW, is one of the most prestigious cybersecurity competitions in the U.S.
CREDIT: NYU Polytechnical Institute
For the past 10 years, New York University's Polytechnic Institute has run a competition called Cyber Security Awareness Week. Students compete in CSAW to find flaws in various websites' security measures, and exploit those flaws to gain access to the sensitive information stored within.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has been known to recruit talent from the CSAW competitors, as do several other government agencies and technology companies.
But professors at NYU Polytech noticed a glaring trend among the students that applied to CSAW: Almost all of them were male. Last year, of the 150 finalists who came to New York City, two were women.
Why is this important, you ask?
The invisible half
"Security is not a problem that can be solved by technology. It needs people. It needs highly skilled people," said Nasir Memon, a professor of computer science and engineering at NYU Polytech. "You can’t just [install] a box and say 'I’m secure'; you need people continually monitoring, understanding, because new threats are emerging all the time," Memon told Tom's Guide.
"So once you realize there’s a shortage, and you see that you’re not tapping into half the population, then you're definitely playing a losing game," Memon continued. "You need to somehow tap into [that half] and get more women into cybersecurity. [So NYU] started looking at … how can we address this problem."
Demand for cybersecurity experts is enormously high; according to some statistics, the field has a 0 percent unemployment rate.
Some in the field contend that, for whatever reason, women aren't receiving the same pro-computer science messaging that men are, and even when they do, they often don't respond to it.
"There are a lot of theories for why this is," said Phyllis Frankl, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at NYU Polytech. "You've got boys playing video games more, just getting more comfortable with the technology, and tending to just feel more confident when there's something challenging. And when it doesn't work, they don't blame themselves as much. The theory is that women, [when something doesn't work] internalize [the problem] and say 'oh I must not be good at this.'"
Further, Frankl suggested that the way tech-savvy women are presented in TV shows, movies and other media also affects women's perception of the field.
"There's so much in the culture of these TV shows where girls who are more [science, technology, engineering and math] oriented are portrayed as being the geeky outcast."
Whatever the reason, NYU Poly decided to do something about it. As part of the college's STEMNOW summer program, which is designed to engage middle- and high-school students in science, technology, engineering and math (collectively known as STEM), the school organized a two-week cybersecurity course specifically designed for high-school girls.
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The class is partially sponsored by the NSA. Aside from running the top-secret-no-longer cyberespionage program known as PRISM that former contractor Edward Snowden leaked to the press on June 6, the NSA sponsors many programs across the United States designed to encourage Americans into entering engineering and technology careers.
"This class is jointly funded by the NSA, but we're not out there analyzing people's phone records," Frankl joked.
Memon explained that increasing private citizens' cybersecurity savvy is in the NSA's best interests: "They want to see more universities teach cybersecurity, not just for [their own hiring needs] but just to get security professionals hired across the whole nation," said Memon. "If private industry's [cybersecurity capabilities] go up, the whole system goes up in terms of defenses."
Kids of the future
The 20 high-school-age girls who participated in the class came with a wide range of programming experience.
There are girls like Malia, a member of her high school's robotics team who wanted to improve her coding skills to help her team be more competitive. And there are girls like Christine, whose schools don't offer classes like AP Java that some of the others had taken.
Memon, Frankl and the other NYU professors involved in the course were careful to structure the two-week curriculum in a way that would keep the more experienced students engaged without letting those who were entirely new to computer science fall by the wayside.
The class touched on a range of topics, from brute-force hacking to database queries to steganalysis, also known as the process of searching for hidden meaning in images. Guest speakers from Google, Oracle and the U.S. government also came to speak about their jobs and teach some of the skills that they use in their day-to-day work.
"The young women are seeing each other, and they’re also seeing a number of female computer scientists who do all sorts of different computer science jobs, and forensic security jobs as well," Frankl said. "They see role models," Memon added.
Many of the students said that the fact that the class was all girls was part of the reason they enrolled, and encouraged them where they might have otherwise decided against taking the class.
"It was much easier to be comfortable," one girl said.
"It made me more at ease to apply," said another of the class's all-girls specifications.
"Yeah, guys like to brag a lot," a young woman chimed in, who came to the class with computer science experience. "As soon as they do something, they say 'ooh, look at this, look at what I did!' And then I'm like 'yeah I did that 20 minutes ago, but I'm not shouting it out to the world!'"
The first girl agreed. "They just brag so much."
"I never met some of the kinds of people I'm meeting [in this class]," said one girl.
"I wish we had more time," said another girl who said she'd been hesitant, at first, to sign up for the class.