Several classes of fifth graders at Running Brook Elementary School spent a recent Friday afternoon deciphering secret messages.
Their mission, given to them by two National Security Agency (NSA) representatives, was to decrypt the messages and find out the contents of a secret briefcase. The students worked in groups and, with a bit of help, were able to crack the code and open the briefcase.
Few of the students had heard of NSA before and their questions ran the gamut from "Is this hacking?" to "Is cybersecurity like cyber bullying?"
One fifth grader, Cameron R., commented after the class, "I've never heard of this before. I think it would be a fun future job."
That's the whole point of the exercise — raising interest in fields like cryptology and cybersecurity. Engaging with schools and universities is critical to the mission and the future of NSA. The goal is to cultivate academic relationships, influence curriculum, and broaden the pool of skilled professionals who can develop innovative solutions to difficult cybersecurity problems. From kindergarten through graduate school, NSA is engaged with over 600 different institutions via more than 30 programs and activities.
At the elementary/middle school level, NSA introduces students to mission critical skills of science, technology, engineering, math, intelligence analysis, language and cybersecurity. NSA employees speak in classrooms, tutor students, judge STEM and science fairs, and more. Camps are sponsored nationwide for both students and educators such as STARTALK, which focuses on mission critical languages, and GenCyber, which aims to improve cybersecurity education.
NSA sponsors a Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) in Cyber Operations at University of Texas, San Antonio. NSA sponsors two types of CAEs at universities and colleges across the country: Cyber Operations as well as Cyber Defense. The programs promote higher education and research in cyber defense and broaden the pool of skilled professionals capable of supporting a cyber-secure nation.
At the high school and college level, NSA employees in research sponsor activities like hackathons and cybersecurity white paper competitions to draw in students and educators.
Ryan Burchfield, who works in network research at NSA, enjoys volunteering at hackathons, which are like invention competitions that go on for 24 to 36 hours. Despite the lack of sleep, he said they are energizing.
"Each time, I learn a few new skills and emerging technologies from my quests to help attendees," he said. "Additionally, our cadre of technical mentors has the opportunity to develop a rapport with attendees and change their perspective of NSA from stereotypical 'men in black suits' to technology enthusiasts, just like them."
NSA also partners with academic institutions for research purposes — to develop innovations needed in the years ahead. One example of these partnerships, which began in 2012 and recently expanded in spring of 2018, is NSA's Science of Security and Privacy Initiative. Six "Lablets," multidisciplinary labs, were established at leading research institutions to develop the cybersecurity and privacy breakthroughs needed to safeguard cyberspace.
Meanwhile back at Running Brook Elementary on a break between classes, NSA's Jeanette Haupt recalls one little boy who told her at the beginning of one of her talks that he hated math. After learning to decrypt codes, however, he totally changed his mind.
"When you see a kid who hated math suddenly want to be a cryptologist, that's pretty cool," she said.
Edited from an NSA news release.