By Edwin L. Aguirre
Sixty-five students from Greater Lowell and Shawsheen Valley technical high schools and their teachers got an overview of UML’s computer science and cybersecurity programs and some hands-on experience at the university’s Cyber Range during a recent visit to campus.
A hub for internet security education, research and workforce development, the 3,200-square-foot Cyber Range facility at the Wannalancit Business Center near East Campus features 20 computer workstations where students can gain experience to help them prepare for careers in the high-demand field.
The visits by Lowell and Shawsheen Valley students were part of the GenCyber program, an annual nationwide initiative sponsored by the National Security Agency (NSA). Students from Haverhill High School will participate in a similar field trip on April 25.
“The goal is to raise cybersecurity awareness and cyber ethics among K–12 students and encourage them to pursue cybersecurity careers and degrees, such as bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science with a cybersecurity option at UMass Lowell,” says Prof. Xinwen Fu, director of the Cyber Range, the university’s Center for Internet Security and Forensics Education and Research (iSAFER) and the UML GenCyber program.
At the Cyber Range, the students were introduced to computer networking and did a hands-on exercise on penetration testing (also known as ethical hacking, which is legally breaking into computers and devices to test an organization’s cyber defenses).
“The students’ response was very positive,” Fu says. “They were very enthusiastic about cybersecurity and were very interested in working in the lab.”
For Alyssa Wallace, a junior at Shawsheen Valley Tech, the Cyber Range visit provided a preview of the career path she wants to follow.
“I found the introductions to networking and penetration testing very interesting,” she says. “I really like programming, building computers and using technology to do so many cool things, so after I graduate, I’m interested in pursuing cybersecurity or programming.”
For some students, the visit offered a glimpse of their future.
“The lectures not only provided a great insight into the fundamentals, but they also gave me a feel for how college is and let me see firsthand how classes are presented,” says Josh Tompkins, a Shawsheen Valley Tech senior who has been admitted to UMass Lowell and plans to major in computer science and minor in robotics. “The experience will help me prepare for the coming school year. I look forward to coming to UMass Lowell this fall.”
Summer Camp for Cybersecurity
Aside from visiting the Cyber Range, the high school students were also encouraged to participate in this year’s GenCyber summer camp. Application to the five-day, in-person camp, to be held July 11–15, is open to the public and is being offered free of charge, thanks to a $150,000 grant from the NSA.
“The camp will be limited to 40 high school students. They will be recruited on a first-come, first-served basis, and we encourage young women and students from underrepresented groups to apply,” says Fu. “Only basic computer use is expected from the participants. Knowledge of programming and cybersecurity is not required.”
The deadline to apply online is April 30. The students who are selected will be announced in early May.
In addition to Fu, the teaching team for the summer camp includes Profs. Benyuan Liu and Fred Martin of the Department of Computer Science and Asst. Prof. Claire Lee of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies. Speakers also include Lawrence Wilson, chief information security officer at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Paul McNeil, a teacher at Greater Lowell Technical High School.
Fu says the GenCyber curriculum has five modules, and each module includes a game played between students and instructors, a lecture with hands-on lab exercises and a discussion on specific topics, including distributed denial-of-service attacks, firewalls, intrusion detection systems, cybercrimes and digital forensics, encryption, cryptography, digital signatures and ethical hacking.
Combating a Growing Global Threat
According to the NSA, the goal for the GenCyber camps, which are being offered in 36 states and the District of Columbia, is to help address the nation’s shortfall of skilled cybersecurity professionals.
In a report released last November, Cybersecurity Ventures, a leading researcher and publisher covering the global digital economy, predicted that the current number of unfilled cybersecurity job openings – about 3.5 million, which is enough to fill 50 NFL stadiums – will continue through at least 2025. What’s more, global cybercrime will cost businesses and governments $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, up from $6 trillion in 2021, according to the company.
Recent events – such as the White House warning companies that Russian hackers are planning to launch cyberattacks against critical U.S. infrastructure following economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine – have demonstrated the urgent need to strengthen America’s cyber defenses.
“What is happening in Europe today is very concerning,” says Krishna Mangipudi, a programming and web development instructor at Shawsheen Valley Technical High School who accompanied the students on their field trip. “Computer technology is part of everything that we do, and all crucial things for social functioning depend on computers. So, anything that disrupts that service is very dangerous – whether it’s a ransomware that attacks hospitals, utility companies or defense systems. Everything is vulnerable.”
He adds, “UMass Lowell’s GenCyber program gives students a good introduction to the topic. It gives them a glimpse into the next level, so they can see what happens after they get out of high school. It gives them an idea of what the path is going forward.”
“We need to train the next generation of cybersecurity specialists now,” says Chris Grandmaison, a computer technology teacher at Shawsheen Valley Tech who is a former cybersecurity analyst at Berkshire Hathaway in Boston. “The cyber threat is not going away; it will only get worse.”