PORTSMOUTH — Hunkered down in a corner room in the school library for six hours Friday, a group of young computer whizzes fueled by snacks and Powerade were bent on solving some of the nation’s most pressing network security issues.
This is CyberPatriot, a national high school cyber defense competition that inspires students to consider careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
“They’re working on network securities and computer security issues,” said Elizabeth Patterson, a computer science teacher at the school. “It’s not hacking; it’s the reverse. We’re preventing hackers. The government feels it’s one of the upcoming threats. The next world war isn’t going to be a ground war as much as a network war. They’re really pushing that high school students prepare so that they can recruit them at the college level.”
Although the high school already has a computer club, this is the first year students have competed in CyberPatriot, which is sponsored by the Air Force and Northrop Grumman Corp.
Despite being rookies, PHS team members took first place in the state round of the competition Feb. 22 to qualify for the Regional Recognition Round March 7-9. Thousands of students from around the country compete online on virtual machines (a software-based emulation of a computer) that are connected to the CyberPatriot server.
“Every time they solve one of the security issues, they score points,” said Ms. Patterson. “Sometimes it sings the ‘Mario Wins’ song.”
Co-captain Tyler Fleig explained a typical problem the students are given to solve.
“They give you a fake story,” said Tyler, a junior. “Like here, we work for the company called Game Makers. We have users that we have to allow, users we don’t allow and administrators. And then they give you certain things like the server is not part of a domain, it never plans on joining a domain and they give you specs on what they want the server to look like when it’s done.”
Tyler hopes to study computer science in college, but he’s also into computer engineering and electrical engineering. Of CyberPatriot, he said, “I think it’s really cool because a lot of the skills we’re learning here we can use in college and our jobs.”
Teammate Nicholas Paruta said what students are learning through CyberPatriot goes above and beyond what’s being taught in the classroom.
“It’s less about the logic of a computer program and more about network access. The computer science essentials that you learn in class don’t translate very well to this. It’s totally new skills,” said Nicholas, who also plans on studying computer science in college.
Co-captain Scott Brooks noted that all competitors are provided with free code, practice software and Windows servers through Microsoft.
“It’s a completely new thing. All of us who had to work on this thing have had to learn how to use it,” said Scott, who wants to study software engineering with a focus on programming in college.
Gives students a leg up
Although cybersecurity may at first blush seem like a narrow field, learning anti-hacking skills will come in handy for anyone going on to study computers, said Nicholas.
“As we progress in this day and age where there’s more technology being integrated into everything, you need people — even if they’re not designated for network security — to have a background in it,” he said.
Ms. Patterson agreed.
“This gives them that background, that footing that puts them ahead of anyone else who hasn’t had it,” she said. “If they go to a (college) lecture and they’re talking about computer security issues, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I did that in CyberPatriot.’”
Other members of the PHS CyberPatriot team are co-captain Ian McMillian, Thomas Barandiaran, Andrew DelSanto, Aiden Lippert, Jonathan Corbett, Justin Lee and John Grzechowiak.
For more information about CyberPatriot, visit www.uscyberpatriot.org.