One local student group’s technical prowess earned them the recent opportunity to compete in a country-wide cybersecurity competition as part of the National Youth Cyber Education Program.
After winning gold at the state level, Dawson County High School’s JROTC CyberPatriot team finished a successful season by competing in the semifinals for nationals at the end of January. “I’m very proud of the team. This is very technical material, and the members of the team are basically self-taught,” said DCHS Senior Army JROTC Instructor Maj. Robert Wiley.
The instructor said that he usually gives the cadets the necessary materials before they study information individually or as a group.
“We talk strategy a bit and come up with the things they should focus their efforts on, then it’s all up to them,” Wiley said.
The National Youth Cyber Defense Competition is a part of the National Youth Cyber Education Program, which was created by the Air Force Association. The goal of CyberPatrior is to inspire students in grades K-12 to pursue careers in cybersecurity or other STEM-related disciplines important to the nation’s future, according to the AFA CyberPatriot website.
During competition rounds, students take on the roles of IT professionals tasked with overseeing a company’s network. Teams are given virtual images that represent operating systems and have to find cybersecurity vulnerabilities within a six-hour period, all the while maintaining critical IT services.
CyberPatriot teams compete at the regional and state level before proceeding to the national rounds. The top teams in the country earn an all-expenses paid trip to Baltimore, Maryland for the National Finals Competition, where they can receive further recognition and even scholarships.
This was the DCHS CyberPatriot team’s second year competing. Their first round of competition was between Oct. 22-24, where they picked a six-hour block during that time to compete. Three weeks later, they tackled the second round and earned Gold tier status.
Then in December, the DCHS team placed first in the state Gold tier before competing in the semifinals for nationals between Jan. 21-22.
“I took part in CyberPatriot to learn more about cybersecurity,” said team co-captain Cobin Yoho. “What I like is when the team is all together, and we're having a great time.”
“It allows me to explore career interests, learn about the technology of tomorrow and be around like-minded individuals,” fellow co-captain Trinity Brooks said about the team.
She elaborated that she and the other members have been able to take on such a serious topic and still enjoy themselves amidst challenges that push them to look outside of the box and to find different, novel ways of approaching things.
Team member Aaron Anderson added that in addition to the awards and friends, being on the cybersecurity team has taught him about computer protection and the process of setting up a whole network connection.
To prepare for competition, the DCHS CyberPatriot team hosted several afterschool practices and took online courses and promoted self-study.
“We took time to read and educate ourselves about the problems we saw and what we thought would be up and coming,” Anderson said.
That often meant researching new vulnerabilities and security measures we can take to fix them, Brooks said.
When it was time to compete at national semifinals, Yoho described the time limitations and having only one computer for a round as some of the more notable challenges to him.
Brooks characterized teamwork as key with the numerous problems the team had to solve during the competition round.
“We all have to bring our knowledge together to be able to understand and answer forensics questions, complete difficult tasks, and overall secure different systems,” she said.
Member Bella Hunt called their team’s final competition “a fun way to be competitive,” especially when they had to think outside of the box.
“The competitions were fun because they were a unique bonding experience between us as a team and provided challenges for us to overcome,” Brooks said.