For at least the last three years, high school-age girls across New Jersey have participated, and performed well, in the Girls Go CyberStart program — which offers scholarships and other prizes to those wanting to learn more about the connections between computer science, technological innovation, and the increasingly vital field of cybersecurity.

"Everything, every physical device, will at some point become connected to the internet, and that's what we're trying to prepare for by getting kids involved," Michael Geraghty, director of the New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell, said.

Now, all students — boys and girls alike — in grades 9 through 12 throughout the state are being invited to take part in CyberStart America. That follows more than 1,300 New Jersey high schoolers competing in the Girls Go CyberStart talent search last year, with 168 advancing to the national level.

Already this year, students from more than 100 different schools have signed up. Geraghty, who is also the state's chief information security officer, said it's New Jersey's goal to "blow past" the competition and be No. 1 in the United States.

But he said even those who don't make it to the national level will still be celebrated here at home.

"Unfortunately last year, due to COVID, we weren't able to have that in person, but (we are) making sure that they're recognized for their efforts and their outstanding contributions in this area," Geraghty said.

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The pandemic has indeed thrust cybersecurity issues into the spotlight, with all of the ways we have tried to move our lives online.

"Working, or doing remote schooling, has put a big focus on cybersecurity and the attack surface, all the different devices, all the different users that are now connecting online," Geraghty said.

This generation has grown up connected, Geraghty said, so protecting emerging concepts like autonomous vehicles, smart cities, and intelligent traffic systems should be of natural importance.

All the more reason, he said, to get kids interested in this particular career track now if problem-solving, puzzles, and the challenges of technology appeal to them.

"When you think of cybersecurity, it's not a great spectator sport, if you will. It's more like watching people play chess," Geraghty said.

For more on how to get involved, go to cyberstartamerica.org or cyber.nj.gov.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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