Competition aims to make cybergeeks cool

The new cybersecurity competition offers scholarships and other prizes to high school students

A new cybersecurity competition for high school students aims to make cybergeeks as cool as sports stars, in addition to identifying a new generation of security experts, said one of the people involved in the effort.

The new Cyber Foundations program is the first cybersecurity competition in the U.S. aimed at individual high school students, said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a cybersecurity training center and sponsor of the competition. Student and high school registration is open until Feb. 18 for the competition, whose prizes include four full-ride college scholarships sponsored by the U.S. Navy, gift certificates, and letters of recognition from governors and members of the U.S. Congress.

During pilot programs in three states, high school students found the letters from governors or members of Congress particularly valuable as additions to their college application files, Paller said during a press conference Tuesday.

"Our goal here is to make cyber-skilled people as cool as sports-skilled people by getting them visibility with members of Congress and the press and by making it just cool to be good at this particular thing," he said. "We think, from the pilots, it looks like it might work."

Other cybersecuity competitions exist, but this is the first aimed at identifying individual high school students who might be interested in becoming cybersecurity professionals, Paller said.

The competition is needed because the U.S. faces a huge shortage in cybersecurity professionals, said Representative Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat who has pushed for more cybersecurity training programs. The U.S. has about 1,000 "world class" cybersecurity professionals, and some estimates have suggested the country needs more than 20,000, he said.

"It's a daunting task to stay one step ahead of the bad guys," Langevin said. "One thing that's become increasingly clear is we don't have a sufficient, robust cybersecurity workforce at the ready."

Langevin helped launch the competition in Rhode Island on Tuesday, and several other members of Congress have voiced support for the program. Representative Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, and Karen Evans, the former CIO at the U.S. White House Office of Management and Budget, participated in a YouTube video encouraging students to join the competition.

The competition includes tests in computer networking, operating systems and systems administration, three areas that Paller called the foundations of a good cybersecurity professional. The competition is "not teaching students how to hack" networks and computers, he said.

U.S. Cyber Challenge, the parent organization of the new competition, has test questions available on its website, linked above. U.S. Cyber Challenge is a division of the Center for Internet Security, a nonprofit group focused on training cybersecurity workers.

Six states, including California, Texas and Maryland, have signed on to participate in the competition. Students in other states can sign up to compete as well.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentsecurityeducatione-governmentindustry verticalsSANS InstituteGovernment use of ITU.S. NavyU.S. White House Office of Management and BudgetKaren EvansJim LangevinAlan PallerCenter for Internet SecurityMac Thornberry

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Grant Gross

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