Inside GenCyber Camp: What’s drawing students nationwide to DSU

June 27, 2019

This is a paid piece sponsored by Dakota State University.

This year marks the third summer that Maddy Passolano has traveled from Chicago to spend a week in South Dakota,  which tells you there’s something special happening each June at Dakota State University.

“I have learned so much within the past three years. I came from knowing absolutely nothing about code to being really confident in it,” she said.

The incoming college freshman is one of a growing number of students nationwide making the trip to Madison for the free co-ed GenCyber Camp offered at DSU in June.

“I’ve learned what you can do with computers, like hacking. I’m not too sure about that yet, but it exposed me to the many things we can do. Just learning about C and C++ programming is really cool,” Passolano said.

A typical day at camp resembles college, with core classes in the morning and electives throughout the afternoon. Classes and sessions focus on programming, hacking and other elements of cybersecurity.

“We structured it as if the students are test-driving college for a week. They spent an hour on programming, an hour on networking and an hour on cybersecurity each morning. In the afternoons, we had about 15 different self-selected sessions or electives,” said Kyle Cronin, assistant professor of cyber operations.

Harry Heiberger, an incoming senior from Brandon, also was back at camp for his third year.

“I’ve learned a variety of things in cybersecurity, networking and programming,” Heiberger said. “Throughout the day, we did a lot of core classes, so I learned basic concepts of those. I also took a lot of electives where they taught things like soldering, lock picking, stuff that might help me if I ever go into computer science.”

Those sessions focused on a variety of areas such as dual credit, financial aid, advance programming, networking, wireless security and Raspberry Pis. Each student was given a Raspberry Pi, which is a tiny computer that runs a graphical user interface, has a storage unit and can be hooked up to a TV, keyboard or mouse. It also has wireless capabilities, so students can continue to learn at home.

“The Raspberry Pi is a neat little electronic gadget I can use with my programming knowledge to do fun projects. I’m hoping to do something fun with it when I get home,” Heiberger said.

Passolano agreed.

“I plan to mess around with my Raspberry Pi and see the different ways I can utilize its features,” she said. “I have a friend who uses it with his computer and his TV, so he watches TV with it. I’m not sure how, but I want to learn how to do that. I also want to explore C++.”

That’s the sort of message DSU is hoping to communicate with the camp: Being successful in cyber-related fields mostly starts with the right mind-set.

“We want to give students a new outlook on cybersecurity, while simultaneously building their confidence and showing them the varying aspects in the field,” Cronin said. “We want them to know that this is a career pathway they can be a part of, even if they have no experience or think they aren’t experienced enough. You don’t have to be an expert to go into cybersecurity. You just have to be curious.”

Finding their fit

In addition to the hands-on learning, students were able to form a sense of community within GenCyber, which enabled them to begin forming professional and social connections. For many students, GenCyber was a place for them to “find their people.”

“A lot of these students might be interested in technology but feel as though they’re the only ones because they’re from a small school or a school that can’t provide these opportunities,” Cronin said. “Once they’re here, they realize they’re not the only ones with this interest. Everyone fits in.”

GenCyber also assists students in trying out career options, piquing interests and further developing the pipeline of future professionals.

“We hope that students can determine if they want a profession in cybersecurity. Inspiring students with a hands-on approach will enable us to fill the high-demand field. This camp empowers them to become a great student and great future professional because they’re discovering their passion for the field and interacting with it,” Cronin said.

Thanks to GenCyber, Passolano plans to pursue a degree in cybersecurity, specifically focusing on programming.

“GenCyber has solidified my choice in wanting to enter the computer world. I’m going to Missouri Science & Tech for cybersecurity, and coming to this camp has confirmed that this field is what I want to go into,” she said.

“Every single teacher here wants you to learn so much; it’s amazing. I’ve had teachers in the past who aren’t that way, so it’s nice going somewhere where they are more than happy to help you or show you how to find the answer.”

Like Passolano, this camp also has helped Heiberger with his plans, which include obtaining a degree in chemical engineering or computer science.

“GenCyber taught me a lot about my future occupation in computer science. It’s made me more interested in that topic. It’s also made me interested in coming to Dakota State,” he said.

In the end, students leave with a variety of cybersecurity skills but also advice and relationships that will help them with their futures.

“GenCyber is a really good experience for kids who aren’t necessarily sure if this is something they want to do. It exposes you to different things and what it’s like to do cybersecurity every day,” Passolano said. “For example, I never had access to Ghidra (a reverse engineering tool). It’s something new that I don’t understand yet. But it’s something that I didn’t know existed before. It’s really cool to discover new things.”

GenCyber is free and welcomes rising sophomores through seniors or those entering grades 10-12 who have any general interest in cybersecurity or like to interact with technology.

To register for the 2020 camp, please click here and follow @DSUGenCyber.

DSU summer camps

Dakota State University believes that every student should have the opportunity to discover technology and explore opportunities that will contribute to their academic success.

To further this success, DSU hosts a variety of camps throughout the summer. In addition to co-ed GenCyber, DSU offers:


GenCyber Teachers Camp

Girls CybHER Camp


Trauma-Sensitive Training


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Inside GenCyber Camp: What’s drawing students nationwide to DSU

For three years, some high school students have come to DSU from as far as Chicago for a one-of-a-kind camp. Here’s what’s drawing them back.

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