District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzalez speaks to Cybercamp attendees. Photo by Erin Hood.
District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzalez speaks to Cybercamp attendees. Photo by Erin Hood.

I’m overwhelmed when I think about how much personal information I have shared through cyberspace. I’m more overwhelmed when I realize how little control I have over my information, whether I have given it to retailers like Target or to government agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles. Though my lack of control gives me pause, I’m pretty sure I’ll keep using technology – from online banking to e-filing tax forms, it’s hard to avoid the convenience it brings to my life.

The Air Force Association is a nonprofit organization focused on national security issues. The AFA sees cyberspace as a fifth frontier that must be protected as seriously as land, sea, air, and space. Individuals, businesses, and government agencies all have to participate in protection efforts, but there are not enough professionals qualified to serve our extensive security needs. 

The all-female Cyber camp that took place last week at Texas A&M – San Antonio sought to address this problem. The camp was an educational program developed by CyberPatriot to foster interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. The five-day camp used fun, hands-on activities to teach the importance of cyber safety and how to protect personal devices and information from outside threats.

The camp focuses on girls because, as Brigadier General Bernie Skoch, National Commissioner for CyberPatriot said, “we need more young women in technical fields” and young women are a “vast resource of untapped talent.” There were approximately 50 ninth and 10th-grade girls at the opening ceremonies last Monday. 

Brigadier General Bernie Skoch speaks during opening ceremonies at Cyber Camp at Texas A&M University - San Antonio. Photo by Erin Hood.
Brigadier General Bernie Skoch speaks during opening ceremonies at Cyber Camp at Texas A&M University – San Antonio. Photo by Erin Hood.

The AFA sees the creation of a well-qualified cyber workforce as a national security issue. Joe Sanchez, co-founder of the San Antonio CyberPatriot Center of Excellence, said there are currently 344,000 jobs available in the cybersecurity industry.

Yes, 344,000. Sanchez added that there are currently 30,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in San Antonio, and that cybersecurity will be a “growth area for decades.”  

San Antonio is uniquely poised to become a national center for cybersecurity because it has a unique combination of elements to support the industry: an already-established tech base, a strong military presence, and multiple universities that have programs in cybersecurity. UTSA’s program was recently ranked the best in the nation by the Ponemon Institute. Skoch added that the AFA gives its full support to San Antonio because our city also has forward thinking leadership and “a community with potential.” 

The Cyber Camp represents a collaboration between the AFA and multiple San Antonio partners to grow a talented cyber workforce — and to make sure women are a part of it. 

San Antonio’s plan for creating paths toward cybersecurity careers starts with infusing STEM education in schools. To help teachers connect their curriculums to developments in the cyber field, Cyber Camp also featured a teacher workshop. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday through Wednesday, teachers from districts across San Antonio gathered to learn about cyber ethics and cyber skills. Teachers also learned about how the CyberPatriot program provides an experiential mode of cyber learning, and about how the online LifeJourney program can help students understand and take advantage of the real-world application of cyber skills. 

CyberPatriot is at the center of efforts to develop a talented cyber workforce and to position San Antonio as a hub for that workforce. The national program recruits students in middle school and high school and provides them with intense team-based training in network security.  

Any high school or middle school student can participate in CyberPatriot. Training materials are designed in such a way that no prior knowledge of cybersecurity is needed. A coach from the sponsoring organization leads a team of two to six students. The students learn how to find problems in an operating system and how to make computers and computer networks invulnerable to illicit use. As they build on their skills, they learn how to operate the network infrastructure of a large company like H-E-B or USAA. 

The teams compete in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, a tournament-style competition in which high school and middle school students compete by defending a computer network against attack in a series of online competition rounds. The competition culminates at the National Finals in Washington D.C. each spring. San Antonio teams have achieved high levels of success at past competitions. In 2010, San Antonio teams took first and third place out of 36 teams competing in the national competition.

Although he is happy with these results, Sanchez noted that the competitions are “not about winning, but about learning.” The competition also provided opportunities for students to cultivate leadership and teamwork skills outside of the athletic realm. 

CyberPatriot started in 2009 as a pilot program with eight teams, all based in Florida, and in five years it has grown to 1,500 teams in all 50 states, Canada, and Department of Defense schools overseas. Skoch notes that the AFA has been able to expand the program with ease because the value added by CyberPatriot to STEM classrooms is clear and measurable.  

The other initiative, of course, is to eliminate the perception that the cybersecurity industry is for men only. A post-season competitor survey shows that 93 percent of participants saw the field as “neutral, easy to enter, or very easy to enter for women.”  

Maria Hernandez Ferrier, president of Texas A&M - San Antonio, speaks to attendees at Cyber Camp. Photo by Erin Hood.
Maria Hernandez Ferrier, president of Texas A&M – San Antonio, speaks to attendees at Cyber Camp. Photo by Erin Hood.

According to Skoch, the more challenging aspect of the program is ensuring that cyber ethics are just as important to participants as cyber skills. To underscore the importance of cyber ethics, the AFA uses it as a frame for all CyberPatriot activities. During the five-day Cyber Camp, the high school girls had a full day of instruction in cyber ethics, followed by three days of technical instruction on Windows, Windows Advanced, and Linux. On the final day, teams participated in a competition that challenged them to solve security problems that industry professionals would face.

Chris Cook, a San Antonio cyber consultant and a major connector of national and local cyber interests, introduced San Antonio teachers to LifeJourney. The online system helps students across the nation learn specific things about a range of STEM careers. Professionals working at Fortune 500 companies or start-up firms sign up to be mentors through the website. Students then select a mentor and follow him or her through workdays. The program demystifies STEM careers. 

LifeJourney is sponsored by local businesses and implemented in schools. Cook points out that partnerships between San Antonio schools, LifeJourney, and local companies like Valero or Rackspace could help companies prepare students for future jobs as the jobs are being developed. It could be a means of strengthening relationships between local employers and their future workforce. Creating and strengthening these relationships is one means of helping San Antonio become a hub for the cybersecurity industry. 

*Featured/top photo: District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzalez speaks to Cybercamp attendees. Photo by Erin Hood.

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Erin Hood

Erin Hood has recently relocated to San Antonio after a decade of teaching, writing, and making art in the Midwest. She has a Ph.D. in arts and humanities, and is transitioning into non-profit work. In...