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Engineering Undergrads Help Girl Scouts Earn Pioneering New Cybersecurity Badges

Girl Scouts in uniform drawing on a white board

In February, 40 Girl Scouts, ranging from kindergartners to fifth-graders, visited campus for one of the Diversity Office’s regular Girl Scout Days and took part in an innovative national program designed to address cybercrime and other cybersecurity issues. As NBC News announced last spring, “For the first time, millions of Girl Scouts nationwide are taking on hacking and cybercrime as they work towards earning newly introduced cybersecurity badges.

NBC News added that “Girl Scouts of the USA teamed up with security company Palo Alto Networks to devise a curriculum that educates young girls about the basics of computer networks, cyber attacks, and online safety.” See NBC News article: https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/girl-scouts-fight-cybercrime-new-cybersecurity-badge-n852971.

The Diversity Office collaborated with this national initiative on February 9, when nine Daisies (kindergarten through first grade), 16 Brownies (second grade through third grade), and 15 Juniors (fourth grade through fifth grade) each earned three cybersecurity badges apiece, thanks to the curriculum activities put together by the Diversity Office and the hands-on teaching of approximately 20 students from the UMass Amherst chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).

“The connections the Girl Scouts made with the SWE women were the most important part of the day,” says Assistant Dean for Diversity Paula Rees.

In particular, one young girl who couldn’t eat pizza due to her recently diagnosed celiac’s disease was very upset during the lunchtime pizza party. But she was consoled when the SWE president told her she was recently diagnosed with celiac’s disease too, and they ate their gluten-free lunches together.

Designing activities to support the various cybersecurity badges was no easy task for the Diversity Office.

“We designed a program adding our own touches but drawing from lots of sources, including Code.org, the Palo Alto Girl Scout Network, and MIT,” explains Rees. “For example, the activity in the accompanying picture is for the Brownies to think about layers of security. They drew castles and the layers of security castles have - moats, knights, dragons - and then we translated that to talk about how computers need layers of security too and what those look like.”

Other fun activities included writing in code. The Juniors deciphered messages written in binary code, while the Brownies wrote messages in invisible ink and developed a cipher code of their own making.

As Rees explains, “The Brownies made bookmarks that they then wrapped in layers of security – tissue paper and a box secured with string – to think about how you might protect something valuable. Another activity asked the girls to spot real and fake photos. All of the girls learned about sharing information safely online.”

The Brownies and Juniors also learned about computer communication protocols and how information is transferred across the Internet using a fun activity in which they personally acted as the Internet, thus learning about IP addresses, DNS, servers, packets, DSL/cable connections, and other facets.

“They had to pretend to be a message writer, the Internet, the server, the return Internet, and message receiver and send packets of materials for making decorative key chains to hang on their back packs, with UV beads and letter beads to spell their names,” says Rees.

All these valuable and creative activities were developed at the College of Engineering to coordinate with the national cybersecurity program initiated by the Girl Scouts of the USA, whose CEO, Sylvia Acevedo, said they created the program based on demand from the girls themselves.

"Protecting their identity online, how to protect themselves when they're browsing, how to protect their computers, their family networks from being hacked, those are things that are of real interest to girls," Acevedo said in an interview with NBC News. (March 2019)