A countdown is in play to silence the auditorium of high school students. Then at 7 a.m. PCT, on Saturday, December 11, a whistle is blown and a password is read out loud, enabling the seven teams from the Los Angeles Unified School District competing in CyberPatriot to log in to the system.
Teams from LAUSD’s Locke High School, Kennedy High School, Los Angeles High School and Franklin High School came together in one auditorium to participate in the nation’s largest and fastest growing cyber defense challenge.
CyberPatriot is the Air Force Association’s education initiative geared toward exciting teenagers about careers in science, technology, engineering, and math and toward instilling cyber responsibility in today’s youth. Created in 2008, it is the first-ever cyber defense competition designed for high school students.
Nationwide, hundreds of teens were performing a similar task, as CyberPatriot’s Open Division underwent its second round of competition. With several schools participating in this year’s competition, LAUSD is among the highest represented CyberPatriot school district in the nation.
LAUSD’s Beyond the Bell (BTB) Branch may have a lot to do with that.
“[CyberPatriot] allows our students to become much more familiar with technology that they are already utilizing in our schools and at home,” said Alvaro Cortes, assistant superintendent of LAUSD’s BTB. “We depend on it, that what we are doing is for the future of our country.”
BTB proposed this competition as part of their Take Action campaign, which was a program implemented to ensure that all youth in LAUSD have access to high quality academic, enrichment and recreation programs.
This year was the first year of full national deployment of the CyberPatriot competition. Previously it was only open to All Service teams, which include JROTC units of all the Services and the Civil Air Patrol. Now that it is open to all, LAUSD BTB is seizing the opportunity.
As a new component of the LAUSD Beyond the Bell’s Take Action Leadership Campaign, the CyberPatriot program has become a popular opportunity for LAUSD students to exercise civic responsibility while learning how to fight cyber crime and computer-related attacks. Other civic programs of BTB include “Kick Butts Day”, a smoking cessation campaign; Denim Day, a campaign against domestic and sexual violence; and community service days.
“We hope that every high school in our district will become engaged in the CyberPatriot program in the future,” Cortes said.
Cyber security is perhaps the most critical national security imperative for the US today. The U.S. relies on the Internet for its defense, economy and daily life, leaving a level of vulnerability to disruption or exploitation of those vital connections. This is where Cyberpatriot steps in, recognizing the need to prepare today’s generation to be tomorrow’s leaders.
“These students are really starting to understand the competition and the tasks being asked of them,” said Bernie Skoch, CyberPatriot Commissioner. “This competition is about the future of America and meeting a demand that will continue to grow. We need this generation to be great cyber defenders for tomorrow.”
The competition reveals the inner workings of computer infrastructures, teaching students how to improve computer systems. The competition involves several rounds of virtual challenges, where students must find and correct vulnerabilities or weaknesses in simulated computer networks. Students are learning how to improve computer networks, strengthen password security, and properly configure ports and routers – some topics even new to the coaches.
“Some of this stuff I already know, because I thought I really knew computers, but our students find things that I would never have thought of,” said Ben Fernandez, the coach for the Kennedy High School team. “Just how they put things together is really impressive.”
“I’m the guy who turns on the computer,” jokes Gary Warnecke, a chemistry teacher and CyberPatriot coach for Locke High School.
Aside from gaining technological skills, CyberPatriot is teaching the students the value of cooperation, discipline and leadership, Warnecke added.
“The teamwork is fantastic,” he said. Throughout the competition, he has watched his team take great initiatives on their own to improve. “I can see changes in our students.”
Not Your Average Geek
The participants of CyberPatriot don’t necessarily adhere to any of the common stereotypes. The competition attracts a wide spectrum of students. From football players and soccer players to gamers and artists, students find the competition intriguing, embracing the challenges presented in front of them.
Skylar Rojas, a 17-year-old senior at Franklin High School, was driven by the competitive nature of the challenge.
“I recognized how important it is to be computer savvy in this day and age,” he said, but added that it didn’t hurt that it was a national competition. “Competition drives me.”
Rojas said the competition is providing him skills he didn’t have before. His involvement with computers before the competition was limited to essays, spreadsheets, presentations and assignments for school. But CyberPatriot has opened a whole new world of computer knowledge to him, developing analytical skills, developing proper research skills and increasing his patience level.
As to the key in succeeding in Cyberpatriot, “remaining calm when the server crashes,” he said. Also, to say focused and determined.
Carmen Maldonado, a 17-year-old senior at Locke High School and captain of her school’s soccer team, immediately recognized the value of CyberPatriot. Anticipating community college next year, Carmen felt the analytical skills being offered would prove to be very useful.
“…I came in because I heard about it from my computer teacher, and then I invited a friend, and then we decided to get in the program because it will be important at university, and maybe help us get into a good school.”
With music blaring from her computer, Carmen diligently worked throughout the competition, having just one other teammate to work with this round.
Maldonado cites “an ability to multitask” to be the key to succeeding in CyberPatriot.
Even though they were not competing, two students from Gardena High School showed up to practice and get a better understanding of how the program works to be ready for next year’s competition.
“I thought [CyberPatriot] would be a good opportunity,” 18-year-old Jahar Ali said. “I like trying new things.” Ali is a stepper, member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and an artist.
Pushing the boundaries
“CyberPatriot is getting them out of one environment and putting them into a new one. It’s the main benefit I see,” said Morris Phillips, a coach for one of the three Locke High School teams. It prepares them for a world that will need their abilities, he added.
Phillips, a technology and physical education teacher at Locke High School, claims the program helped his students become more united with peers of different backgrounds.
“They are interacting with other students that would never be in their neighborhoods,” he said.
The next round of competition for the advancing LAUSD teams will be January 8, 2011, the semifinals for the Open Division. CyberPatriot is presented by Northrop Grumman, with founding partners SAIC and the CIAS at the University of Texas-San Antonio. More information can be found on CyberPatriot at www.uscyberpatriot.org.