Stuck at home with a primary- or secondary-school student? Organizations from professional training groups to national governments are teaming up to offer virtual cybersecurity training for teens -- in some cases, for free.

Schools and parents unsure about what to do with primary school students stuck with remote learning will soon have another option: cybersecurity training. 

The UK government and the SANS Institute, a professional training organization, have teamed up to offer an online program that trains students in the foundations of cybersecurity. The program will be free to any student in the United Kingdom for the summer months. Within two weeks, the training program will also be available to students in the United States as well, but for a fee, says Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute.

The program is part of the UK government's attempt to identify students who may be interested in further cybersecurity training, he says. SANS is in discussions with the US government to offer a similar program to US citizens, according to Paller.

"If you have a brain wired for this type of learning, it's fun," he says. "There are people who love puzzles who love learning this way, while other people cannot understand why you would do this to yourself."

With the world economy continuing to be hit hard by the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and remote employees having to juggle work while managing their children's education, training groups are looking to provide educational options for teenagers and college students. 

While many activities targeting teens are focused on raising awareness of cybersecurity issues, a handful of programs are aiming to provide an early entry into the discipline. The Public Broadcasting System, for example, has teamed up with the University of Texas at Austin and educators from a number of organizations and companies to produce a series of activities as a cybersecurity lab for younger students. 

Other free options include Cybrary, a professional training service that offers basic courses for free. Government contractor MITRE also has training resources that are free that and are suitable for older students. SANS's CyberAces is a three-module foundation focused on operating systems, networking, and system administration. 

All the programs hope to attract more potential students to learn about cybersecurity.

Both government agencies and private industry need more cybersecurity professionals who have the skills necessary to secure critical systems and data, SANS's Paller says. Before the economic downturn caused by the epidemic, estimates of the shortfall in cybersecurity workers had  risen to more than 4.0 million globally, according to (ISC)2 Cybersecurity Workforce Study, with job sites estimating that only two out of every three available positions were filled. With the pandemic still threatening the economy, cybersecurity workers appear to have relatively stable prospects.

Yet the demand is not uniform across all subspecialties in the discipline, Paller maintains. Supply of both less technical managers and less academic security-operations workers are less critical.

"There are enough people getting out of college to fill all of those jobs," he says. 

The most technical workers — those who can create exploits and hunt down attackers in networks — are the hardest to currently find, Paller says. Programs that target developing those highly technical skills in students are the most beneficial, he says. Only one to three students out of every 100 attempting the Cyber Discovery program have the persistence to qualify for the scholarships at the end of the program.

"The average kid plays for three or four hours, but some kids play 300 or 400 hours," he says. "It is not just that you need a natural skill, but a natural skill with a lot of specific domain knowledge."

For that reason, the most compelling resources for both parents and industry are those that can keep students' interest. The SANS Institute has turned each project into a game with scenarios — some fanciful, others more realistic — that keep the students' interest, Paller says. Another program that focuses on attracting female students to cybersecurity takes a similar approach.

In addition to its Cyber Discovery program, the SANS Institute has a one-hour challenge called Cyber Start Go, which includes 12 puzzles that get progressively harder.

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About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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