The Charger Blog

High School Students Become ‘Cyber Agents’ During Innovative Summer Academy

The University’s GenCyber Agent Academy enabled high school students to gain hands-on experience in such topics as Python and ethical hacking, while learning from experts in the field of cybersecurity.

Aug 20, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Students in the classroom for the GenCyber Agent Academy
Students took courses as part of the GenCyber Agent Academy.

Amber Marrero ’21 wrapped a piece of bright green painter’s tape several times around a metal hexagonal prism. She wrote the word “indeed” on each of its six sides, and when she took the tape off, the letters were scrambled. She’s used this example to explain a cipher – an algorithm for performing encryption or decryption, and she then taught students how to apply this thought process to cybersecurity.

Amber Marrero ’21
Amber Marrero ’21 explains a cipher.

A recent graduate of the University’s cybersecurity and networks program, Marrero spent a week this summer sharing her passion for cybersecurity education with high school students. Dedicated to enabling and empowering others to be safe online, she did just that in her role as a teaching assistant for the University’s GenCyber Agent Academy.

“Seeing these students learn, explore, and have “aha” moments is very rewarding,” she said. “On Monday they did not yet know the principles of cybersecurity, but by the end of the program, they not only knew them, they knew why they were important – and could apply them. It’s remarkable how much they learn in one week. Yet as much as I teach them, they also teach me.”

Led by the University’s cybersecurity faculty, the GenCyber Agent Academy is the only GenCyber camp in Connecticut. It enables 20 male and 20 female students entering grades 9 through 12 to gain essential skills that will prepare them to continue to their cybersecurity education. Students came from as far away as Iowa to take part in the program.

Alesandro Gopal, a rising sophomore, became interested in GenCyber after his sister took part in it and enjoyed it. He’s always been interested in cybersecurity and problem solving, and he enjoyed the program.

“I especially liked the coding challenges,” said Gopal, of Woodbridge, Conn. “This opened me up to what cybersecurity is all about, and I want to explore it even more.”

‘There are so many fields in computer science that I wanted to explore’

As part of the camp, students took courses on topics such as Python, ethical hacking, network defense, and cyber forensics. The program fosters collaboration and engagement, as students engage in challenges and a campus-wide cyber forensics scavenger hunt.

Alesandro Gopal
Alesandro Gopal at the GenCyber Agent Academy.

Students are rewarded for their involvement and teamwork with “cyber bucks,” which they can then use to “buy” hints in the capture the flag competition – the culminating event of the camp during which students compete in teams for points and prizes. The competition enables them to apply the skills they’ve developed over the course of the program.

“I wanted to join the GenCyber Agent Academy because there are so many fields in computer science that I wanted to explore,” said Corin Riahi of Rowayton, Conn. “I’ve learned a lot about Python and Linux.”

“My dad got me into computer science when I was about 11,” added Ethan Knox of Fairfield, Conn. “I’ve gone to several computer camps and I’ve taken AP computer science classes, but I still wanted more. I’ve enjoyed this camp, and I especially liked learning about ethical hacking.”

‘Cybersecurity is among the greatest challenges to our freedom’

As part of the program, students also explored careers in cybersecurity. Maj. Ryan Miller and Lt. Col. Cameron Sprague, who were a part of the University’s Project IRONCLAD program this summer, discussed opportunities in the field. Students also learned from cybersecurity professionals from Google and the FBI.

For Lixander Soto, a rising senior from Bridgeport, Conn., these opportunities were particularly meaningful. He dreams of working for an agency such as the FBI or CIA, or a company such as Google.

Students in the classroom learning network defense.
SStudents learn about network defense as part of the camp.

“This camp has given me access to learn so much,” he said. “I was self-taught, and this gave me an opportunity to expand my knowledge, to network, and to learn more about coding.”

Designed to foster inclusivity, GenCyber includes students of diverse backgrounds – the vast majority of whom are students of color – and various skill levels. Funded by the National Security Agency and the National Science Foundation, the camp is offered to students free of charge.

“This is so important, especially because cybersecurity is among the greatest challenges to our freedom right now,” said Liberty Page, lecturer and coordinator of the University’s undergraduate program in cybersecurity and networks. “It’s critical to offer this program to high school students because this is when they start making decisions about what they’d like to study in college and, ultimately, what they want to pursue for their careers.”

"It’s important to excite kids about the cybersecurity field and the opportunities in it at young age,” added Ibrahim “Abe” Baggili, Ph.D., director of the Connecticut Institute of Technology and an internationally recognized cybersecurity expert. “Many of them have no idea about the amazing career opportunities waiting for them across every industry."

‘Seeing their excitement is very fulfilling’

Created in 2016, the GenCyber Agent Academy is the first-of-its-kind summer academy in Connecticut that encourages young women and individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups to explore the field of cybersecurity.

“As a woman, when I entered the field of cybersecurity, only about ten percent of the field was made up of women,” said Prof. Page. “Underrepresented groups made up an even smaller percentage. We’re committed to increasing this representation in cybersecurity. The makeup of our team represents the makeup of our students at this camp – it is mixed, and it is diverse.”

Hailey Johnson ’22 M.S., a candidate in the University’s graduate program in cybersecurity and networks and a GenCyber Agent Academy teaching assistant, loved sharing her passion for cybersecurity with students, and she hopes the experience informs and inspires their own careers.

“Seeing their excitement is very fulfilling,” she said. “I hope this camp fosters a love for cybersecurity, and I hope it encourages them to continue to explore the field.”