What I Learned from Teaching Cyber at an All Girls High School


A little bit of my background, I have been teaching cybersecurity for about 15 years now and have taught on both sides of the Atlantic, educational levels from Masters to Sophomores at high school. No matter where I have taught, there is one thing that I’ve always noticed, girls are very rare in a mixed gender cybersecurity class.

My current school is quite small by US standards, we have just over 650 students, and when I first floated the idea of a cybersecurity class I remember the conversation with the head of school. “How many students have you got?” That dreaded question and at the time my reply was “Three.” After musing for a few seconds, I got a reply I was not ready for, “Well if you don’t start somewhere, you never will.”

That was seven years ago and the cyber program at my school has gone from strength to strength. We now offer Cyber Security, Ethical Hacking has full year classes, and my students have completed courses in Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) Gathering and Digital Forensics. Last year, we introduced a class purely focused on cyber competitions, allowing the girls to gain credit for the competitions they work on. Next year, we have courses on Penetration Testing and Counter-Terrorism added to the mix.

With all these classes offered, please understand that my classes are not large by any standard. I find it hard to believe that what we have managed to create at my school could be replicated at all schools, but we are doing what we can to address the gender bias and that’s at least a start.

Okay, first and foremost, I’ve found that the whole gender bias within the Cyber field is ludicrous. Girls are as capable and, in some cases, better than their male counterparts. So the fact that this is still a thing seems daft to me.

Another thing I have noticed is that the “it’s for boys” mentality is alive and well, even in an all-girl setting. We are making inroads into changing this, but it is an uphill battle. Our enrollment into advanced tech classes is good, but needs to be expanded. This problem is also exacerbated by the supposed ‘nerd’ culture: the thought that anyone who has an avid interest in technology, video games, etc., has no ‘real’ friends and will spend their entire life living in their parents’ basement. It seems odd to me that these stereotypes still exists. Meanwhile, most people carry a device with the processing power of a supercomputer in their pockets and use it pretty much constantly, but have no clue how it works. Our school is and was the only school in the whole state that mandates a class in technology as a graduation requirement. So, in this aspect, all the girls will have some grounding in technology.

Now to answer the question, “How do you get girls into your classroom?” Well there is no holy grail answer to that problem, from my perspective, no girls means no classes, but from two different viewpoints: teaching and competitions.

Once you get one girl to join, others will follow. One of the tenets of the school where I teach is sisterhood. If one of them is prepared to take that first scary step into either a classroom filled with guys or a cyber team built likewise, others will follow, but it takes a strength of character to be the leader in that aspect. As I mentioned before, the first three girls who took my cybersecurity class were not your typical cyber nerds by a long stretch. They had an interest and wanted to try something out, but they opened a door for all the girls that came after them to say there is nothing wrong with studying these topics.

From teaching in an all-girl classroom in the USA and mixed-gender classroom back home in the UK, I have learned that girls thrive in technical classes in the right environment. I have had the pleasure to teach some girls with an incredible talent for cybersecurity that far outstrips the boys I’ve taught over the years.

On to the subject of competitions. While my cyber classes are relatively small, my cyber teams have to be capped in size for logistical purposes. For example, trying to coach six Cyber Patriot teams becomes “not fun” very quickly. I have had, on numerous occasions, girls not take any cybersecurity classes, but compete in things like Cyber Patriot for three seasons. I can only think that the theory side of cybersecurity education is considered dull, but the problem-based learning is something they warm up too. Couple this with the chance to get a one over on their male counterparts, to say that this is no longer “just for boys,” and it’s been a fantastic promotional tool for the education side of the subject matter.

Fred

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