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GenCyber Camp is an ‘amazing experience’

June 26, 2015

By JANE UTECHT, Staff Reporter, Madison Daily Leader

"To educate and excite."

That's the purpose of the GenCyber Camp being held at Dakota State University this week, and is being accomplished, according to some of the 195 high school students who are attending the camp.

GenCyber Camp is "an amazing experience," said camper Nathan Harmer from Harrisburg. "It's way better than I expected."

The high school students from 23 states take morning classes in security, programming and networking during the week-long camp. These help refresh programming skills, said camper Isaac Hettver, who is also from Harrisburg.

In the afternoons, the students choose from different elective classes. Some campers may choose hardware electives, Hettver said, but he has been sitting in on network classes. Michael Boyle, who came from New Jersey, is interested in programming electives.

But the best part of camp is not the class time.

"They let us mess around with technology," Hettver said. "That's the coolest."

"They let us use a raspberry pi as a tool," said Harmer. (A raspberry pi is a small, affordable computer.) "Just the fact that they give these to us" was impressive.

Tweets from camp instructor Rob Honomichl show the students working with Spheros (robotic, app-controlled balls). Honomichl is an instructor in DSU's College of Business and Information Systems. Each student is also given a laptop computer to use for the week.

The excitement extends to those teaching the class as well.

"We love their excitement and we enjoy when they have those `Aha!' moments when a new topic clicks in their head," said camp instructor Dr. Josh Pauli, also an assistant professor in the College of BIS. "It's a great and rewarding thing as an instructor."

A similar camp was held at DSU last year, one of six across the nation in what was called the prototype year, said Dr. Rita Doerr of the National Security Agency (NSA). This year is called the pilot year, Doerr said, with 43 camps held on 29 campuses in 18 states.

The camps are sponsored by the NSA, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and DSU. DSU has another cyber camp coming up in July which will be for girls only. This week's camp is co-ed.

NSA and NSF representatives are at the camp this week as an assessment group, said Heather Eikenberry of the NSA. They are getting feedback from the students and instructors on suggestions to improve the camp, she said, comments which they will take back to their agencies.

The number of camps is limited by funding, Eikenberry said, but the more positive the response, the more clout they will have with Congress for funding options.

There are also hopes to expand the number of camps. A press release from DSU says, "It is planned to expand from the current 43 camps to 200 camps by 2020."

Eikenberry said that one stipulation with the camps is they "must be free to the student."

Doerr pointed out that the funding dollars come from existing programs in the agencies. "There is not an additional burden from the taxpayer perspective."

Judging from the feedback received, Doerr said, "Everyone is having a great time." The campers like the open atmosphere and open environment, but most wish it were longer, possibly two weeks, she said.

The number of returning campers also reinforces how positive the camp is, Eikenberry said. Harmer, Hettver and Regina Van Driel are all back for their second year at the camp.

Van Driel, who is from Mitchell, said she told the NSA officials that she liked the difference in the camp's structure this year.

"This year the morning classes are set up by ability," she said, a positive change "because you feel more comfortable asking questions...if you're all in the same boat."

"It is amazing the variety of experiences the students bring with them," said Doug Hauser, a science instructor from Indiana, who is with the assessment group. Hauser "brings the teaching perspective, the pedagogical aspect," said Doerr and Eikenberry.

"Some [students] have done things on their own," Hauser said; others have been to other camps.

"The interest is there. Now we just need to motivate them to pursue it."

Besides camp activities, another factor that motivates the students is the career potential in the industry.

Cyber security "is the only field with zero unemployment," said Doerr.

"You will get a job and it will be a good job," said Eikenberry.

This fact was not lost on Van Driel. "The NSA people said cyber security is the only job where you're guaranteed a job," she said.

Hettver said that could be true of any technology job.

"Whatever you do you're most likely to get a job."

The camp also motivates the students to attend DSU after high school. Several of the campers are going to be seniors this fall and say they plan to attend DSU, including Boyle, who plans on coming back from New Jersey to attend school here after graduation.

Boyle heard about DSU from a friend and was impressed by the school's ranking as a Center for Excellence in cyber security.

Hettver considers it an opportunity to come to DSU for the camp so he will know what to expect and prepare for when he enrolls after graduation next spring.

Camp activities and growth in the industry "turns you on to the [cyber security] program and the school," said Van Driel, who also plans to enroll at DSU after graduation.