By David Boyce
When school let out at Heritage Middle School on Friday, December 9, eighth graders Elaina Gorton, Eunicee Negrete, and four of their classmates still had important work to do before enjoying the weekend. From 3:30 to 9 p.m., they worked together in the second round of the national CyberPatriot Defense competition presented by the Air Force Association and sponsored by the Northrup Grumman Foundation.
CyberPatriot is the National Youth Cyber Education Program. At the center of CyberPatriot, is the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition. The competition puts teams of high school and middle school students in the position of newly hired IT professionals tasked with managing the network of a small company. In rounds of competition, teams are given a set of virtual images that represent operating systems and are tasked with finding cybersecurity vulnerabilities within the images and hardening the system while maintaining critical services in a six-hour period.
“There were a lot of software updates we had to do,” Gorton said. “We kind of freaked out, because they took a long time. We had to do some password protections, changing settings and securing networks.”
CyberPatriot has blossomed from eight teams from Orlando competing in 2009 to over 3,300 high schools and middle schools involved in a program in which the top teams get an all-expense paid trip to Baltimore for the national competition.
Heritage students, which include Jacob Cox, Weston Edwards, Max Eaton, Mackenna Bruns, and Tyler Pullman performed well in the first round on November 11. Out of 600 middle schools across the country, Heritage was one of 49 schools that scored 100 percent. With Heritage science teacher, Dr. Ramona Emery, watching, the students plugged away on different ways to prevent computer hacking.
“It was kind of nerve-racking, but once you knew everyone was there for you, it was really nice,” Negrete said. “It was really cool getting to work with each other. It was really fun to work with people who have the same interest as you.”
Perhaps one of the toughest parts of the competition is waiting five business days for the results. After the first one, Gorton learned of the result when she was headed to lunch late the following week.
The third round is January 14th, and if Heritage scores high enough in the first three rounds, the team advances to Districts in February. Emery hasn’t looked beyond to nationals. This is the first time Heritage has participated in CyberPatriot. Heritage is the only school in Liberty Public Schools involved in the program. Emery credits Heritage Principal Scott Carr as the catalyst.
“Scott is the one who heard of this program and recruited me,” Emery said. “He did all the leg work. He contacted the IT department at Liberty and explained we wanted to get involved in this program.”
The next step was getting students to take some of their free time to become CyberPatriots. Initially, Emery had trouble finding students, because the program was new to Liberty, and the students didn’t quite understand what it was about. Once Emery explained the program to students in her class, about 15 signed up; it has now whittled down to seven. Six compete, and one is backup in case somebody gets sick or can’t make the competition.
Every Wednesday, Cris Ward and Curtis Bohlmeyer, who work for LPS in the IT department, come to Heritage and work with the students involved in CyberPatriots. They help them figure out how to operate the different operation systems. They give examples for students to see if they can correct them, so they have an idea of what to do when the actual competition comes up.
“I learned a lot of things, settings, a lot of things in the Microsoft places,” Negrete said. “My whole computer experience has expanded a lot more than I originally thought it would, which is great.”
As the world becomes more dependent on computers, individuals who have extensive knowledge in preventing computer hacking become even more vital.
“Like Dr. Emery said, there are a lot of threats out there, but not a lot of people trained to deal with it,” Gorton said. “It is a necessity and a job that needs to be filled.”
Emery sees more schools in LPS getting involved in the CyberPatriot program next year.
“I believe the internet is not going away,” Emery said. “We constantly hear people trying to do bad, so we want to take these kids who have talent in computer science and train them to do good. There is currently a shortage of people who have the skills to do this type of work. There is a lot of scholarship money out there for kids who want to do this type of work. We want to stay involved with this program; we think it is quality program. The people who are running it have integrity.”
The CyberPatriot program has far exceeded Emery’s expectations. She wasn’t sure they would get the program started this year. Now that the Heritage students are fully involved and dedicated to do the best they can, she has enjoyed watching the students learn more about computers and how to work together to solve problems.
“It is a competition where you have to use your brain, use your teammates, and really think outside the box,” Emery said.