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Cyber Warrior Academy to inspire students in rapidly growing field

About 40 high school students learned about drone programming during the National Cyber Warrior Academy GenCyber summer camp at the University of North Georgia. Diane Stephens, lecturer of computer science and information systems, shows them a drone.

This summer, 40 high school students watched as Dr. Bryson Payne connected a $20 cable from his laptop computer to his Volkswagen Jetta to hack into his car's controls.

"It makes the students say 'Wow!'" said Payne, professor of computer science in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia (UNG).

This simple demonstration and others were part of several scenarios students witnessed and learned how to do and, more importantly, how to prevent at the National Cyber Warrior Academy (NCWA) GenCyber summer camp at UNG.

"It is easy for someone to hack another person's information and take their identity with one or two clicks," said Dr. Tamirat Abegaz, an assistant professor of computer science at UNG and one of the instructors of the academy. "So I wanted to show students how to protect themselves."

While this is one purpose of the academy, its mission is to produce the next generation of cybersecurity leaders. Payne, one of four UNG faculty members conducting the academy, explained 350,000 U.S. cybersecurity positions were unfilled in 2017 because of a lack of qualified candidates.

"That number is supposed to grow to 1 million," he said. "It's a terrible crisis."

His estimates are supported by CyberSeek, a project supported by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE), a program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

To help boost the number of qualified cybersecurity candidates, the National Security Agency (NSA) devised and funded the NCWA programs. Thanks to the federal grant money, UNG established its GenCyber summer camp as a way to introduce high school students to cybersecurity and inspire them to pursue the field.

The plan is working. About 140 high school students from across the country applied to attend UNG's GenCyber summer camp, which is in its third year. Candidates filled out an online application and submitted essays and letters of recommendation. From the pool, Payne and Abegaz selected 40 teens, with half being female and 50 percent minorities from across Georgia.

"We ranked them according to the essays," Payne said. "We also gave extra consideration to students in our local area and especially to those who may not have access to computer science courses. Students also had to have that passion for cybersecurity."

The 10-day camp runs until June 30 at UNG's Dahlonega Campus. During the camp, students receive 80 hours of classroom instruction and extension activities, including 40 hours of hands-on lab exercises. Students are instructed using the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) curriculum, a qualification gained through assessing the degree of strength of a computer system using penetration testing techniques.

Other activities include drone programming and operation, robotics instruction, car hacking, 3D printing, and coding in a number of computer languages. They also participate in light physical activity.

"We get them up and get the blood flowing and their brains working, so they are not sitting at a desk all day," Payne said.

A group of UNG Corps of Cadets received the same training and mentored the high school students during camp. One was Noah Hebert, a junior from Kennesaw, Georgia, majoring in information systems with a double minor in cybersecurity and leadership.

Hebert, who was a mentor last year, said the academy provided hands-on activities with real-world applications.

“In my computer science class at UNG, I learned to write code,” he said. “At the academy it is all interactive. So I knew when I wrote a specific code, a specific action would happen like hacking into a computer.”

Students also visited NSA Georgia, which is located at Fort Gordon, about eight miles southwest of Augusta, Georgia. Fort Gordon is home to the U.S. Army Cyber Center for Excellence, the U.S. Army's force modernization proponent for Cyberspace Operations, Signal/Communications Networks and Information Services, and Electronic Warfare.

UNG is one of eight schools in Georgia designated by the NSA and Department of Homeland Security as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education (CAE-CDE). Recently, the University System of Georgia approved a Bachelor of Science in cybersecurity.

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