Aurora cybersecurity camp adds STEM focus to summer learning

“It’s just providing them ... a way of thinking about computers, defending systems and preparing them for a wide variety of options — and well-paying options.”

AURORA | There’s more to summer camp than s’mores and swimming lessons.

Just ask any of the roughly 60 middle and high school students who attended CyberSecurity Camp at Rangeview High School in Aurora last week.

While many students across the city’s two public school districts were eking out the last drops of freedom from the waning days of summer break, students from Aurora Public Schools, Cherry Creek School District and other districts across Colorado were back in the classroom the week of July 18 to cut their teeth in the fields of biomedical engineering, cybersecurity, clean energy and computer programming.

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Ettie Geltser, 11, right, and Jayden O'Dell, 13, make a poster for a glove they designed to protect your hand while cutting on Friday July 22, 2016 at Rangeview High School. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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Ladi Alale, right, talks to Christopher Williams about his wrist stabilizer for Parkinson's Disease on Friday July 22, 2016 at Rangeview High School. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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Asher Geltser, 9, tests his solar fuel cell car on Friday July 22, 2016 at Rangeview High School. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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Asher Geltser, 9, tests his wind turbine on Friday July 22, 2016 at Rangeview High School. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

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Aidan Tow, 12, reacts after winning the fuel cell car race on Friday July 22, 2016 at Rangeview High School. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20160722-Cyber Security-Aurora, Colorado

Ladi Alale cuts a strap on his wrist stabilizer for Parkinson's Disease on Friday July 22, 2016 at Rangeview High School. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

“We want to get kids excited as soon as we can,” said Randy Mills, STEM teacher at Rangeview and cybersecurity camp coordinator. “If we wait for them and try to drag them in (to a field) in high school, the ship has sailed. This gives them an opportunity to see a lot of things.”

Throughout the weeklong camp, students learned about circuits, how to solder wires and code using the programming language Python, among other skills, with the help of volunteer instructors from Colorado State University and Northrop Grumman. Both organizations partnered to help fund and organize the camp.

But more than hard skills, Mills said that the camp is designed to steer students’ thinking toward the STEM disciplines.

“No matter how much I teach them this semester, in six months, they’re going to have to learn something different because the landscape has changed,” he said. “It’s just providing them … a way of thinking about computers, defending systems and preparing them for a wide variety of options — and well-paying options.”

Indeed, jobs and salaries across the cybersecurity sector have snowballed in recent years with the field only expected to continue to blossom in the coming decade, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median pay for an information security analyst was $90,120, or about $43 an hour, in May 2015, according to the BLS. The Bureau reported that the number of available jobs in the field is expected to grow by about 18 percent by 2024 — more than double the average growth rate across all jobs.

And earlier this spring President Barack Obama earmarked more than $19 billion in the 2017 budget for cybersecurity initiatives, marking a more than 35 percent increase from this year’s budget, according to a White House press release.

The camp, which has been held for two years at Rangeview and two years at Grandview High School, was a product of the popular Cyber Patriots Program, which Mills helped found with three students in APS six years ago. With more than a dozen Cyber Patriot teams now at several schools across both APS and Cherry Creek, the extracurricular program culminates with an annual competition each spring that pushes teams from across the country to work through a series of simulated cybersecurity scenarios.

The Denver metro area has quickly become a hub for cybersecurity learning, according to Mills, who pointed to the fact that four of the 12 finalists in last year’s Cyber Patriot competition, which is sponsored by the Virginia-based nonprofit Air Force Association, hailed from Colorado.

“The strongest programs, bar none, are in the Denver metro area,” he said.

Cybersecurity offerings have proliferated in Aurora, specifically, with two cybersecurity classes now offered at Rangeview, according to Mills. He said that both classes are full with waiting lists.

Despite the signals of growth, the field of cybersecurity has continued to face challenges related to diversity, as only about 10 to 15 percent of cybersecurity analysts are female, according to Mills. However, he touted the fact that about 30 percent of this year’s cybersecurity campers are young girls.

“The diversity piece is very important for us,” Mills said.

Recruiting analysts and engineers who are not exclusively white men is an exciting prospect and a nagging thorn in the industry’s side, according to Michael Gettman, a systems test engineer at Northrop Grumman’s Aurora office.

“Seeing 25 to 30 percent female attendance is extremely encouraging,” Gettman said.

Camper Maddie Torrez, a rising Rangeview freshman, said that she appreciated being around other students who shared a passion for engineering and math.

“I’ve been really interested in engineering for a long time, so I’ve really liked being able to interact with other people who share that interest,” Torrez said. “I’m looking forward to being able to apply what I learned here to school this year and my job in the future.”