CyberSlam 2023 introduces area high schoolers to cyber career opportunities


Students at CyberSlam 2023 were surprised to get anonymous Air Drop alerts to their phones.

students work with CyberSlam 2023 drone
High school students fly drones during CyberSlam 2023. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

Luckily it was part of a test set up by U.S. Secret Service members Michael Johns, Matt O’Neil, and Michal Condor to demonstrate that cyber-related hacks can happen anytime, anywhere. They also highlighted the illicit use of cryptocurrency.

“Hopefully, what you’ll get out of this is one, don’t accept any of those Air Drops you may have been seeing, and two, watch your social media,” said O’Neil, an expert in cyber-related crimes who leads Secret Service’s Global Investigative Operations Center (GIOC) and Cyber Intelligence Section (CIS). 

The Secret Service members joined Homeland Security experts, high school teachers, George Mason University faculty and more than 400 students from five counties and 22 high schools for the hands-on cybersecurity event held on Jan. 9. 

Last year’s event was open to Loudoun County students, but with increased interest and participation, the Johnson Center at Mason’s Fairfax Campus was the ideal venue.

Students flew drones, tested their cybersecurity knowledge, and even blocked a theoretical cyber hack. They also got career advice, including guidance on keeping their social media feeds clean.

Professor and Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Community Engagement in the College of Engineering and Computing Liza Wilson Durant also spoke about the importance of cybersecurity. 

“You’re here because of your interest in cybersecurity,” Durant said. “We hope that for the next several years, those skills you’ve been honing develop into a real expertise that’s going to have an impact on the quality of our lives and even the security of nations around the world.”

In Virginia alone there are more than 60,000 open cybersecurity jobs right now, a number Durant said will continue to grow in the coming years.

“Energy grids, autonomous vehicles, even your doorbell, your microwave, refrigerator, think about medical systems, [all of these] are things that have to be secure now and that are vulnerable,” says Durant. “This is a critical time for the work you’re going to be doing.”

Mason established a first-of-its-kind cyber security engineering department in Virginia in 2020. The College of Engineering and Computing will be a key part of Fuse at Mason Square (formerly Arlington Campus), which will house a mix of university R&D and related education programs, as well as corporate innovation labs, incubators, accelerators, and co-working facilities when it opens in 2025.

The event was put on with the assistance of members of Mason’s Systems Engineering and Operations Research department along with teachers from Briar Woods and Loudoun County high schools.