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Next merit badge option for Girl Scouts: cybersecurity

Michaela Capps, 17, and Veronica Myers, 19, help a group of Girl Scouts work on a project during a summer day camp in Long Beach, Calif., on July 3. Girl Scout troops of girls ages 5 to 17 are being taught everything from robotics to video game design these days -- and now the organization is adding cybersecurity to its list of badges and patches.

RICK LOOMIS, LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By ALEXA D’ANGELO | Los Angeles Times | Published: July 21, 2017

LOS ANGELES — By selling Thin Mints and Tagalongs in kindergarten, Elizabeth Lewelling earned Girl Scout badges for customer service and managing money.

Now going into eighth grade, she’s setting her sights on a topic a bit more complicated than the cookie business: cybersecurity.

The 12-year-old from Palmdale, Calif., is one of 1.8 million Girl Scouts nationwide who will have the opportunity starting in 2018 to adorn their vests, tunics and sashes with merit badges for information security.

The move illustrates the ongoing evolution of the 105-year-old activity organization for girls, which in recent years has expanded its merit badges beyond those associated with traditionally feminine skills — think “babysitter” or “dinner party” — to include more topics related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It’s a shift Lewelling appreciates.

“I’ll definitely be trying to get cybersecurity badges,” Lewelling said. “I’m going into eighth grade now and we use technology for everything, so I want to know how I can protect myself online. It’s really important.”

The 18 new badges — earned by mastering online safety, dealing with cyberbullies and coding, among other skills — are the result of a multiyear partnership between the national girls’ nonprofit and the Silicon Valley network and enterprise security company Palo Alto Networks. Girl Scouts of the United States of America Chief Executive Sylvia Acevedo said the launch of the program shows the organization’s “advocacy for cyberpreparedness.”

They join an increasingly contemporary array of insignias (“computer expert,” “inventor,” “product designer” and “website designer” were all added in recent years), though the organization has not purged longstanding badges or themes.

“We might have coding workshops but because this is Girl Scouts, we’re also focusing on developing risk-taking, empathy, goal-setting and confidence so that girls are prepared to overcome obstacles they might face as female coders,” said Melanie Larsen, spokesperson for the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles. “It’s a holistic approach — and an all-girl environment is a safe space for girls to really feel comfortable speaking up and taking risks.”

The badges will be available to troops across the country, though local chapters can supplement them with additional patches and programs.

It’s not the first technology-and-scouting collaboration. Girl Scouts of the USA recently partnered with Google to offer coding activities.

In the greater Los Angeles area, troops have collaborated with the Society of Women Engineers and Women in Gaming International. There are introductory rocketry, circuitry and astronomy programs, coding camps and a popular Lego robotics program, Larsen said.

It’s a big change from “electrician,” “health” and “naturalist” — the initial science-related badges offered to girls in 1913.

Girl Scouts got its start when Juliette Gordon Low assembled a group of 18 girls to create a young women’s alternative to the Boy Scouts. In the beginning, they played basketball, hiked, swam and camped — actions that then challenged gender roles of the time.

The expansion of science and technology-related badges and programs marks “a real transitional moment for the Girl Scouts,” said Kathleen Denny, adjunct professor of sociology at Trinity University, who has researched the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.

“A historian writing about the Girl Scouts once said the organization was looking to develop a traditional, up-to-date woman,” Denny said. “They’ve always had that progressive, feminist impulse — but never losing sight of the preparation for more traditional roles of wives and mothers.”

Denny said that children’s organizations, particularly those for just boys or girls, can have a profound impact on a child’s attitude and overall sense of self.

That could help young women see a place for themselves in the technology industry — a booming sector but one well known for its gender gap.

According to research by information security firm Cybersecurity Ventures, the worldwide deficit of qualified cybersecurity professionals will reach 3.5 million by 2021.

A study by research firm Frost & Sullivan found that women hold only 11 percent of information security jobs globally. And 69 percent of women who haven’t pursued careers in information technology said they made that choice because they didn’t know about the opportunities available to them, according to research from the Computing Technology Industry Assn.

“This collaboration will go a long way in eliminating traditional barriers to access to cybersecurity education, like gender and geography,” said Rinki Sethi, senior director of information security at Palo Alto Networks. “Getting ahead of tomorrow’s cyberthreats will require a diverse team of problem solvers to approach challenges in innovative ways.”

Young Daisies and Brownies won’t be fending off cyberattacks from criminal hackers and rogue nation states — there will be an age-appropriate curriculum, designed in partnership with Palo Alto Networks, Larsen said. That includes basic computer skills, techniques for staying safe online, and practice in keeping private information private.

Girl Scouts of the USA and Palo Alto Networks declined to comment on Palo Alto Networks’ financial contribution to the scouting organization.

Lewelling, the Girl Scout Cadette, credits her seven years with the organization for steering her to topics she hadn’t, and probably wouldn’t have, encountered.

That includes robotics, mechanical design, programming and medicine.

For now, her “digital movie maker” and “netiquette” badges hold a special place on her vest. Time will tell if the cybersecurity badges earn primo vest placement as well.

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