An Anne Arundel County Girl Scouts team won a competition against more than 200 girls by solving a hypothetical ransomware attack and saving a moon base.
That’s right. These Girl Scouts saved the moon.
Eighth graders Hosanna Schutz and Kylie Wahl, along with 9th grader Claire Lui, worked together to stop a cyber attack against the moon’s base system all in an effort to learn more about cybersecurity skills. It was part of the first-ever Girl Scouts Cyber Challenge pilot program to teach young women STEM specific skills in areas like phishing, breach analysis, decryption and encryption.
The event brought together young women from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Howard counties and Baltimore City. The Girl Scouts tackled the challenge of hackers demanding ransom before restoring oxygen to the moon base. The event was held with partner Raytheon, a cybersecurity and defense company.
Despite the high stakes, the girls kept cool heads throughout the challenge and won first place.
“We all had our mini-jobs: one person would run up and type in the answer and then report back if it was wrong and then we would help each other," Schutz said.
The girls learned how to problem solve with each assigned task. They had to answer 18 questions to stop a possible hacker from infiltrating the base. In one moment, the girls would check documents or spot possible suspicious characters and the next they would read through emails or find the right fingerprint.
Each task, or station, would allocate them 35 minutes. But the team realized they could go back and answer questions they missed.
“We worked through lunch,” Wahl said. “We would pause on all the other ones and figure out what it was together.”
One particularly difficult task required piecing information together so Lui approached the assignment with that in mind.
“It was a puzzle,” Lui said. “I had to figure out the map.”
Toward the end of the day, one of the program coordinators informed everyone that the girls were in first place. They were surprised but kept working, Wahl said.
Though the program sets up cybersecurity challenges, it is hard to emulate the real-world challenge of breaking into the male-dominated field. According to a report in 2013, women make up 11% of the cybersecurity workforce industry on a global scale.
Women can work in the same area of expertise, they just need the confidence to do so, said Carrie Leary, Anne Arundel Community College professor.
“What I find is that it’s not that the women can’t do the work in this field, it’s that they lack the confidence in themselves to do it,” Leary, who teaches at the School of Science and Technology, said in an email. “There is a level of persistence that is necessary to be successful in cybersecurity and many get intimidated by their male counterparts.”
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“It is necessary that we provide women with the exposure and confidence that they too could have very rewarding careers in this field. We are facing a massive shortage of cybersecurity talent in this country. We need women to help solve this problem."
But exposure to skills shown in the program can help the girls and will benefit the field itself too, said Violet Apple, CEO of Girl Scouts of Central Maryland.
“What I have learned about cybersecurity is that it needs people who have the ability to think outside the box, who are willing to question and who won’t just accept an answer. When you bring a diverse group of people and diverse set of thinking, that is what will help the cyber field," Apple said. “I want girls to imagine a future where they can be a solution to some of these more pressing issues —popping up around the world— in security."
The exposure for the Anne Arundel team made a difference. Schutz said she initially did not have an interest in cybersecurity, but her dad signed her up anyway.
She’s thanked him when she got home.
“They were teaching us how to do this in the future because there are not a lot of girls who work in cybersecurity. I feel like they are trying to show you that this can be a possible career for you if you understand the basics,” Schutz said.