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Security's way to attract a girl

Using laptops, tablets and other mobile devices, along with a BYOD strategy, school districts can help their students to expand their learning. Credit: Flickr by nist6ss

Who needs a tic-tac when you have inspiration and innovation to get girls excited?

There are some days when I feel grateful to have landed my dream job as a writer, but there have been few days over the past 20 or so months that I haven't missed being in the classroom.

Friday was one of those difficult days that gave me pause and made me think that perhaps the teacher in me is still hopeful she might some day make a comeback.

I was invited to attend an event at IBM's Watson Health as part of Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and it was the first time that I, as a journalist, sat watching students engage in the learning process.

Approximately 20 eighth grade girls from the Curley School of Jamaica Plain, accompanied by their teacher Alissa Ferro, gathered around a conference table at IBM's office in Cambridge to learn what a career in cybersecurity can look like for them. 

But the day didn't start by launching into career topics. Instead, the women of IBM including Catherine Webb, security systems acquisitions operations manager and Heather Ricciuto, academic initiative leader for IBM Security, grabbed the girls' attention by showing them how their privacy can be exploited in today's digital world.

After a tutorial of the current threats to which anyone could easily fall victim, Webb divided the group into five teams and introduced a digital board game to challenge their understanding of how to protect themselves online.

"Is your online ID secure?", a game reminiscent of both Sorry and Monopoly, required that each member of the team be able to correctly answer a series of challenge questions in order to both advance on the board and earn points for purchasing power. The ultimate goal was for an entire team to make its way around the board into the safety zone.

Each team played with a deck of cards, some of which were 'chance' cards that would allow them to flip a coin and either move forward or backward. The team took their chances on questions like, "You received a SPAM message on Instagram," by landing on heads or tails, the player either did something positive, like delete the message and moved forward on the board, or clicked on it, causing them to go back some spaces.

Teams could also earn points which allowed them to buy anti-virus software or password testers. Other cards applauded, "You set a 2FA on your gmail account, move forward five spaces and get 15 points."

As the teams played, one of the women in the room asked, "Does anyone like math?" to which one young lady exclaimed "ME!" as she shot her arm up in the arm. Others confidently responded to the team activity challenge, which asked, "A phishing attack is under way. List three things to look for."

  1. Don't click on any links
  2. Check to see if there are obvious errors in the English grammar
  3. Look at the email address--if it's from someone you know, verify with them first that they actually sent the message.

"I was so impressed that they even knew what a phishing attack was," said Natasha Engan, vice president of security for financial services market at IBM. "There are a lot of adults who wouldn't be able to answer that question."

When Engan asked the room of girls, "How many of you think you may want to try something in cybersecurity, not a career, but a class or coding or something?" nearly every hand in the room went up.

That's when she shared her own background with the girls, noting that she never intended to end up working in the cybersecurity industry. "I tried different things," she told the girls, "and I would encourage you to do the same. Take some classes that you wouldn't necessarily take."

What followed was a barrage of questions from the young ladies that went on for nearly 20 minutes. "Are you a vice president? What if you hacked a hacker back? Why would someone want to hack me?"

The girls talked about their passions and hopes for future careers, and those in the room who had said they wanted to be engineers, lawyers, journalists, and teachers started to see that they can both pursue their dreams and grow in the cybersecurity industry.

I didn't want to leave. I felt a room filled with excitement and energy. IBM had reached out and grabbed these girls, because they can. Driven by their passion, intellect, curiosity, and energy, these girls and all the others that are encouraged to see themselves as potential leaders in STEM will change the course of the future in IT.

Though I envied Ms. Ferro and wanted to engage more with the girls, I did feel a sense of pride in being able to tell them that I am a journalist who writes about cybersecurity.

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