Student Cybersecurity Competition Boosts STEM Interest
The largest simultaneous high school cyberdefense competition ever held wrapped up late last month, crowning a champion and sending kids to college who otherwise would not have attended. CyberPatriot II began with representatives from nearly 200 high schools from 41 states and one from Japan participating in a simultaneous, virtual opening round on November 7; the event culminated on February 19 with an Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps team from Clearfield High School in Utah taking home top honors.
The competition involved three rounds of play in which participants had to resolve cybersecurity issues. Eight teams advanced to the final round in Orlando, Florida, in which they completed a series of challenges against a red team opponent and indirectly competed against each other. Teams had six hours to find and correct vulnerabilities in a network. The first and second rounds of the competition required the students to fix flaws in a server, with the second round presenting more complex problems than the first.
The Air Force Association (AFA) created and facilitated the competition with help from partners such as SAIC, which provided technologies and funding to make the event possible, and General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems (GD-AIS), which also funded the event. In addition, other companies and organizations donated time and money.
According to Buck Buckwalter, the executive vice president of AFA, the organization's goal is to promote interest in technical disciplines because the Air Force and the country need people in that category. "Cybersecurity is the hook because it's so hot," he explains. "I can't think of another issue today that is hotter than cybersecurity. We are benefiting really from the sexiness of cyberspace."
Having students choose study paths in technical fields is important for industry as well as government. Jim Jaeger, director of Cyber Defense and Forensics for GD-AIS, says, "Our nation's future ability to defend against cyberthreats and protect its vital networks demands that we engage young people now and show them the dynamic careers that are in cyberdefense ... The excitement you see in these kids as they take on the defense of these networks in these competitions reinforces the optimism I have for our next generation. But that requires efforts like this to include and encourage young men and women."
Though Buckwalter has no real numbers yet, he says that the teenagers and coaches who participate claim the competition increases students’ interest in pursuing additional training, including college education. CyberPatriot II has made that possible for some participants; SAIC donated $25,000 that the AFA used to award scholarships. The first place team members received $3,000 each; second place were awarded $1,500; and third received $500.
For Adam Thurman, the student who organized and led the winning team, the scholarship means he will be able to fund college for at least one semester, and his coach, Maj. Kit Workman, USAF (Ret.), says Thurman has looked at pursuing a major in a technical discipline. The major says that the knowledge and experience his participants gained during the competition makes all the time and energy put into the work worthwhile. Winning was pretty good, too. "It was amazing when they read our names, because when they read second and third I thought, no way, no way," he says.
Maj. Workman likens cybersecurity to the race to put a man on the moon. He has talked to the seniors in his class about how that race inspired a generation. "The next frontier here is the cyberworld," he says.