‘GenCyber’ bootcamp aimed at building next generation of cybersecurity pros

Hosted by the VCU College of Engineering and Cybersecurity Center, the week-long bootcamp welcomed middle and high school students from across Richmond at no cost to participants.

Student working in front of a computer

A career in cybersecurity just might be on the horizon for thirty-eight Richmond-area middle and high school students, thanks to the first VCU GenCyber Cybersecurity Summer Bootcamp hosted July 25-29, 2022, by the VCU College of Engineering and VCU Cybersecurity Center.

GenCyber is a nationwide initiative funded by the National Security Agency (NSA) with more than 70 locations across the U.S. It aims to provide summer cybersecurity camp experiences at the K-12 level, raising cybersecurity awareness, introducing cybersecurity career opportunities and increasing student diversity in cybersecurity colleges. The program is entirely free for participants.

VCU was selected as a 2022 location and opened its doors to JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps) students with an interest in computers and cybersecurity.

“The idea is to engage young students and introduce cybersecurity early in their life so that later, when it comes to choosing a profession, they know [cybersecurity] is an option to them,” says Irfan Ahmed, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Engineering Department of Computer Science. Ahmed was program director of VCU GenCyber, welcoming a diverse group of camp participants in what is typically a male-dominated field.

“Ours was a very diverse camp, which meant we were able to engage all of these different, underrepresented groups,” said Ahmed. VCU GenCyber hosted 13 female students and 15 minority students as part of the 2022 camp.

Leading up to the start of camp, Jenilee Stanley-Shanks, director of outreach, diversity and inclusion at the VCU College of Engineering, helped create pre-camp outreach activities in order to begin engaging with participants.

Beginning July 25, VCU GenCyber ran each day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in East Hall at VCU. Students participated in hands-on exercises, cyber board games and a tour of VCU cybersecurity facilities. Instruction was led by Dr. Ahmet Sonmez, associate professor in the College of Engineering Department of Computer Science. Colonel Carlton Day, Senior Army Instructor at Franklin Military Academy, served as the camp’s middle and high school pedagogical expert.

The camp had seven teaching assistants working as camp counselors: Michael Blatt, Komil Chaghtai, Cassidy Coates, Sohum Dharamsi, Benjamin Estrada, Maisha Mahmood and Ahmed Salih. Most of the TAs are VCU Computer Science undergraduate students.

A popular activity involved a Raspberry Pi: a low cost, credit-card sized computer that plugs into a monitor or TV and uses a standard keyboard and mouse. Each camp participant received their own Raspberry Pi to complete camp activities and to keep afterwards.

“These students were quite proficient, even at the seventh grade level,” says Ahmed. “They were quick and really amazing. I think we got the best of the best students.”

Throughout the week, participants also heard from speakers in industry, government and academia, including an Algorithm Software Engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Director of Cybersecurity at Capital One, tech leader at Ferguson Enterprises and Cyber Warrior from the U.S. Army.

VCU computer science students Adeen Ayub and Masrik Dahir also spoke during the camp and met with participants, sharing their backgrounds, advice and experiences at VCU.

Participants walked away from VCU GenCyber with a deeper understanding of the cybersecurity profession and what it takes to stay safe online in 2022, from password security to social media. Ahmed and his team are organizing a post-camp activity this fall to keep students engaged. “Over 94% of our participants said they want to learn more about cybersecurity,” says Ahmed. “We want to give them more opportunities to explore.”

For more information about VCU GenCyber Cybersecurity Bootcamp, visit the program website.