Hundreds of New Jersey high school girls recently participated in a national competition designed to introduce them to the fields of cyber security and technology.

The Girls Go CyberStart challenge is a program sponsored by the SANS institute that’s designed to give high school girls an opportunity to learn cyber security skills, discover their talents and explore possible career paths.

Mike Geraghty, director of the New Jersey Cyber Security and Communications Integration Cell and chief security officer for the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said the Cyber Start completion was an online challenge that involved games and puzzles.

“They were required to do computer forensics, solve lots of puzzles, cyber-security type puzzles, decrypt and encrypt information, do some coding and a whole bunch of other things that are relevant to what we do on a regular basis," he said.

Nationally, 6,700 girls from 2,700 teams competed in CyberStart, including 453 girls from the Garden State.

“The girls in New Jersey did fantastic. In fact, the team from Bergen County Academies came in third place nationally and several other teams from the Garden state placed within the top 100 nationally,” said Geraghty.

Anoushka Ramkumar, who was on the Bergen County Academies team, said learning about cyber security was fascinating.

“A lot of the challenges were intuitive and a lot of the challenges had solutions that were close to what were on the field manual, but as the levels got higher, it was a lot harder to solve a challenge," she said.

She said cyber security is a perfect field for young women because “girls love to work together and girls really love to channel their energy and time if they’re really interested in it.”

Ramkumar added she is interested in learning more about cyber security as a possible career because “with the combination of collaboration and hard work you can really get somewhere.”

Sarah McNey, who was on the Communications High School team from Wall, said the experience was cool.

“It started off very intuitive and something would click and you would solve a problem, but then as you progress through it, it became very difficult and it took a lot of research and piecing things together," she said.

She said after participating in the challenge, she is also considering cyber security as a possible career.

“I’ve been checking out colleges and seeing if they’re good for computer science and things of that nature.”

Geraghty said cyber security is a vitally important field that has tremendous growth potential.

“In every home we have smart thermostats, we have Alexa, smart TVs — cyber security is part and parcel of living today," he said.

“It’s not something just for the nerds and the geeks. It’s for everybody to be aware of and everybody to have an understanding of.”

He said the program will be expanded in the coming months to include even more high school students in New Jersey.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com