By: Mike A. Bryan

Today, there are over 500,000 open cybersecurity roles. That number is predicted to grow even more to 1.5 million by the year 2021. Traditional education and training institutions are unable to meet the demands of employers. On average, 3% of all college graduates focus on computer science or STEM-related degrees. These numbers show a staggering skills gap that must be addressed in order to secure our personal lives and our country. 

Since 2016, CyberUp has engaged youth from middle and high schools in the St. Louis metropolitan area through camps and competitions. These activities are designed to introduce students to cybersecurity basics and open their minds to the idea of pursuing a technical career. CyberUp has hosted nine summer camps, ten hacking competitions, and introduced over 7,000 students throughout the metro area to the world of ethical hacking. After wrapping up our 2019 summer camps, we asked our community partners “How can we serve your students better, and what can we do to support your STEM efforts?”

In response, CyberUp launched the PowerUp: Cyber Games pilot program at the beginning of 2020. CyberUp’s youth cybersecurity competition begins a students’ career journey in middle and high school. By making learning fun, interactive, and easy to implement, students learn practical and real-world skills at an earlier age. We know that skills build confidence and that confidence fosters opportunities beyond high school. We are showing students that they can become cybersecurity professionals. 

The program showed great improvement in individual and team learning and awareness of cybersecurity, so we hate to see the pilot end, but are super excited for the next season that starts in October of this year. During the course of this series of cybersecurity competitions, the Lighthouse Preparatory Academy, North Tech High School, South Tech High School, Jennings High School, the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, the Boys and Girls Club of St. Louis, and two homeschoolers competed in monthly challenges to test their cybersecurity skills, knowledge, and ability to use cyber tools and software. Over 75% of the students finished the entire season even with the pandemic, and we inspired over 60 students to pursue a career in cyber. 

In the monthly challenges, students were tasked with capturing and/or defending systems and networks, conducting log analysis, pentesting and auditing for vulnerabilities, breaking encrypted messages, identifying data breaches, and finding weaknesses in computer systems and networks. These are all real-world tasks that a cybersecurity professional might be responsible for on a daily basis. After completing these monthly challenges, these students are on their way to a successful career in cybersecurity, a job in high demand especially now with the pandemic. We have shown these students that they can become cyber professionals and start a lucrative and long-lasting career in cybersecurity. 

Were there any bugs or problems during the season? To be totally honest, the gaming platform and user interface went off without a hitch. The most challenging thing that happened in the season was the pandemic! Since our Cyber Games are virtual, it was not a big problem. The students either worked together while in a group text, or used a video chat program like Zoom or Google Meet in order to work together. It was inspiring to see how the students were able to adjust and continue to participate. Hats off to the participants of this pilot program!

Our next season’s registration is already open with an early-bird registration until August 1st and regular registration wrapping up October 9th. We are so excited for the next season — we know it will be even better than the first. Go to www.wecyberup.org/inspire-youth/ to find more information or to sign up. Don’t miss out on this incredible opportunity to be part of the best youth-dedicated cybersecurity competition series in the world!