The next generation of cybersecurity professionals is being created by the Girl Scouts

Girl Scouts of the USA is rolling out a set of 18 new cybersecurity badges next year, to teach young women in grades K-12 programming, ethical hacking, and identity theft prevention.

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Tech leaders will soon be able to look to the Girl Scouts for both their cookie and cybersecurity needs. The first-ever national Girl Scout Cybersecurity training badges will roll out in 2018, teaching girls grades K-12 programming, ethical hacking, and how to avoid security incidents, as part of a partnership with Palo Alto Networks, the organizations recently announced.

Girl Scouts of the USA has ramped up the number of STEM badges and programs offered in recent years, including new robotics badges, Girl Scouts CEO Sylvia Acevedo told TechRepublic.

"As we were in the final stages of testing and piloting badges coming out, we asked girls what they might want," Acevedo said. "Loud and clear, one of the big areas of interest was computer science, and, specifically, cybersecurity."

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At the Daisy level, for grades K-1, the cybersecurity badges will focus on establishing and protecting your digital identity, including building firewalls around the information you post online. At the middle and high school level, each badge will include progressively more complex programming, hack-a-thons, and ethical hacking skills.

The badges come at a critical time for the cybersecurity industry, which is facing a talent deficit predicted to reach 3.5 million by 2021, according to Cybersecurity Ventures. Women currently comprise just 11% of today's cybersecurity workforce.

"Those numbers are staggering, and have not been trending in a positive direction, so it's clear that we need to find new and creative ways to address the talent deficit and lack of diversity in our industry," Rinki Sethi, senior director of information security at Palo Alto Networks, told TechRepublic. "We realized that if we work [with the Girl Scouts] to eliminate the barriers that typically prevent young girls from diving into STEM fields--like gender, geography and access to STEM education--and if we can introduce young girls to cybersecurity beginning when they are five years old, we can inspire the next generation of cybersecurity professionals."

Research shows that women who learn STEM skills in women-only environments tend to continue studying it for longer than those who do not, Acevedo said. "We have the national reach, we can scale, and we have a girls-only environment that helps girls persist in these technical skills," Acevedo added.

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The cybersecurity badge program will be made available in the US beginning in fall 2018 for girls in grades K-5, and in fall 2019 for girls in grades 6-12, Sethi said. The curriculum is still in development, she added, but the initial focus will likely be on cybersecurity skills development and online safety education. The Girl Scouts will also partner with tech companies across the country that will provide expertise, shadowing, and virtual support.

Other tech companies are also looking to develop a new cyber talent pipeline. Last week, AT&T and the Air Force Association announced new "CyberCamps" to teach teenagers basic cybersecurity and STEM skills. The Boy Scouts of America have also offered a Cyber Chip youth internet safety certification since 2012.

The Girl Scouts have long supported women entering STEM fields, Acevedo said: Some 90% of all female astronauts who have gone into space were Girl Scouts.

"We have the scale and the systems around badges to reach girls in every single residential zip code," Acevedo said. "As tech leaders look to where they can get their future leaders, they need look no further than the cookie entrepreneur for their next cybersecurity expert."

Image: Girl Scouts of the USA

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