The National Cyber Security Centre is turning teenagers’ natural interest in technology into mainstream careers. Meet one girl who has impressed staff so much she was introduced to Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II at the launch of UK’s new cyber nerve centre earlier this year.
Long gone are the days when teenagers aspired to simply be footballers, film stars or fashion designers. A new generation is growing up with far loftier dreams – to help the fight against the risks to our digital society, cyber crime.
The growing legion of teenage boys and girls often self-identified as ‘cyberists’ are intrigued by unexplored technology. As our digital age enhances more of daily life, cyberists will be the ones who safeguard it from all manner of threats.
One such girl is Kim – a 15-year-old science prodigy from Gloucestershire, who gained an A* in GCSE Maths in Year 9, has three UK Mathematics Trust gold medals and recently gained first prize in a maths competition for Years 9 and 10 organised by the University of Southampton.
While she was always drawn to the subject, it took the guiding hand of a teacher to make Kim realise that maths really prospered outside the classroom – and led her to the path that would really help it blossom under classes put on by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which is a part of GCHQ.
Kim said: “I have always been interested in maths and it was something I picked up quite quickly, which is why I did my maths GCSE in Year 9.
“I really enjoy algebra, and then I started doing challenges and solving problems outside of school. While it was something I was drawn to but I didn’t really know where it would take me – most maths jobs seemed to be in education.
“It was my maths teacher Dr Spence who first showed me that maths is not just about the classroom. We are also lucky to have a computer science department who have helped me learn more about ciphers and cyber security.
“I got interested in online cipher challenges and started to realise that maths is such a big subject, and it’s something I really enjoy so it felt good to keep pushing myself further.”
Kim is now building on her vast academic success by taking advantage of free training offered by the National Cyber Security Centre to lay the frameworks for what could prove to be a fascinating career in national security.
The NCSC is supporting the development of the UK's next generation of cyber professionals, and Kim is one of many benefiting from its free ‘Cyberfirst’ courses, which are available all over the country for 13-to-17 year olds.
She joined forces with schoolfriends to be one of 8,000 teens to enter the NCSC’s CyberFirst Girls online competition, where her team ‘Cyber Chipmunks’ pitted their security skills against young women from all over the country.
Kim has also gained a place on the NCSC’s sponsored week-long CyberFirst Defenders course at the University of Gloucestershire this summer. The course will provide Kim and 49 other 14- and 15-year-olds an invaluable introduction to the tools, knowledge and skills required to build and protect small networks and personal devices.
Kim added: “I find all the things put on by GCHQ and the NCSC really challenging, but also fun.
“The CyberFirst Girls competition was really good because we got to work in teams of other girls from my school in solving challenges. It wasn’t hard to find a team – lots of us are interested, and we all enjoy improving on what we know.
“It’s such a big subject, you can really have a lot of people with different interests who would still find it interesting. Some of the cypher challenges are really confusing, but I think it’s easier for young people to pick up. I know lots of adults struggle with it!”
Kim has made such a strong impression on staff at the NCSC that she was invited down to London for the launch of its new building in February 2017, where she met Her Majesty The Queen.
She recalled: “It was a brilliant day – I came down with my mum and dad and I got to speak to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
“We were in a ‘living room of the future’, where she saw how the Internet of Things can be corrupted to make your house a threat. She was very interested in what she saw and said it was good to see young people interested in helping reduce the threat.”
Chris Ensor is the NCSC’s Deputy Director for Cyber Skills and Growth, and having worked in the business for nearly 30 years understands more than most the importance of investing in tomorrow’s cyber security experts.
He said: “There is no job out there with more importance than protecting the UK’s society, families and way of life – which is why there has never been a greater need for young talented people to get involved in cyber security.
“CyberFirst delivers a broad range of activities designed to identify and support talented young people like Kim through their education and highlight exciting career opportunities in cyber security.
“For those about to embark on a University degree in Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths, we offer up to 250 places on a £4,000 a year student bursary and an opportunity to be launched in to a career in cyber security upon graduation.”
“It’s very exciting that we are helping these incredibly talented young people to gain skills they need to go on and have a fascinating and rewarding career.
“Whether students take up a career in government or industry protecting the UK’s National Security , the NCSC, working with colleagues in the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is making an investment that will make a huge difference for generations to come.”
The government is fully committed to defending against cyber threats and address the cyber skills gap to develop and grow talent. A five year National Cyber Security Strategy (NCSS) was announced in November 2016, supported by £1.9billion of transformational investment.
The NCSC was opened by the Queen in February 2017 and provides a single, central body for cyber security at a national level. It manages national cyber security incidents, carries out real-time threat analysis and provides tailored sectoral advice.
The NCSC have just issued a regex crossword challenge! If you fancy having a go then head here. For more information on the CyberFirst programme, visit our dedicated web page for Cyberfirst courses.