Pacific Technology School students Yavuz Yalmaz (left), Austin Grande and Cody Hale (seated) help their team during the Cyber Cup final round.
Aug 17 2010

No Hacks Here: Cybersecurity Competition Sparks Students' Imaginations

San Diego Mayor's Cyber Cup is one of several events aimed at fueling student interest in STEM careers.

For many adults, the thought of a group of teenagers huddled together in a room around powerful computers might conjure up images of digital mayhem.

For those hoping to harness the next generation of electronic warriors and cybercrime fighters, however, a gathering of middle and high school students armed with high-powered computers isn't a cause for anxiety. It's encouraging.

Students like Austin Grande, Cody Hale, Colin Pritchard, Elias Roos and Yavuz Yalmaz, of Orange County, Calif., are the future of IT security, say professional IT experts and seasoned engineers. Their interest in computing shouldn't be feared, but nurtured.

This spring, as eighth-graders at the Pacific Technology School in Costa, the five boys competed against dozens of students from San Diego–area middle and high schools to earn bragging rights as the region's best anti-hackers.

The competition, dubbed the San Diego Mayor's Cyber Cup, is one of a growing number of programs created by IT and engineering professionals to foster future generations' interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The programs are designed to reverse declining enrollments in math and other technically oriented classes and to encourage students to pursue careers in high-tech fields.

“School systems aren't generating enough engineers and mathematicians,” says Jim Lasswell, who sits on the board of directors for the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), a co-sponsor of this year's Cyber Cup. Other sponsors included the San Diego Mayor's Office; the University of California, San Diego; Microsoft; and the defense contractor SAIC.

Real-World IT

“We need to increase awareness of science and math proficiency. We also need to get capable kids interested early,” says Terry McKearney, director of the NDIA–San Diego Chapter's STEM committee, which coordinated the Cyber Cup.

Four teams bested students from 136 other California middle and high schools in and around San Diego to compete in the final of this year's San Diego Mayor's Cyber Cup.

“We want the kids to use computers in a competitive environment, so they see that there are real-world applications of their knowledge,” McKearney continues. “They can see that it's not just a hobby: They can actually make a living with it.”

Lasswell says students are most likely to retain excitement about STEM and its many real-world applications while they are in middle and high school. If they aren't “infected with curiosity” about these complicated disciplines at a time when their peers might be taking easier classes, they are less likely to develop (or maintain) interest in these disciplines later in life.

Tracking and Hacking in San Diego

More than 140 schools participated in the San Diego Cyber Cup event, which consisted of a qualification round and a final round.

In both rounds, students worked with a network system administration training program, developed and donated by SAIC, called CyberNEXS. The competition required students to remove vulnerabilities and maintain critical services while also preventing live attacks on their virtual Microsoft Windows servers. The virtual environment was provided through VMware. Students participated in the qualification round from their schools' computer labs.

Four schools competed in the final round at computer lab facilities at UCSD's college of engineering. La Jolla High School came out on top, but Pacific Technology was the only middle school to place among the three runners-up.

Teams were judged on their ability to track, counter or block hacking attempts from “bad” hackers remotely supplied by SAIC's help desk staff at the company's San Diego office.

Thrill of Science

Hale, Pritchard and Roos' passion for computers was fueled in their robotics class at Pacific Technology School.

Percentage of U.S. high schools not offering Advanced Placement computer science courses

SOURCE: CSTA National Secondary Computer Science Survey (2009), Computer Science Teachers Association

Shohrat Geldiyev, their computer science teacher, had heard about the Cyber Cup through the Computer Science Teachers Association and thought the students in the robotics club would enjoy the challenge. He says they applied for the competition after consulting with the local Microsoft store, which donated some equipment and offered them a “mini-course” in Windows security.

The Pacific Technology students say competing against other similarly talented and interested students was exhausting but also exhilarating. “We had to stop hackers from accessing programs on desktops, download antivirus applications, and look for spyware,” Roos says. He adds that learning to work in a virtual environment with VMware was challenging at first, but that he and his teammates quickly adapted.

“The biggest challenge,” he says, “was finishing. We lost a lot of sleep.”

Pritchard concurs: “We were at this almost 24 hours a day for a week,” he says. As the only middle school in the final round, “we did pretty well.”

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“We saw that so much is tied to security” in a realistic computing environment, Hale says.

According to NDIA–San Diego Chapter's McKearney, the final round at the UCSD lab was particularly intense, with about 50 students and instructors working in the lab simultaneously from roughly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

But the close quarters and flurry of activity created a kind of kindred spirit among the participants. “We weren't intimidated by the high school hackers,” Pritchard says. “They were actually kind of nice.”

Increasing Competition

The San Diego Chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association isn't alone in organizing competitions that engage middle and high school students' interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Terry McKearney, director of the NDIA–San Diego Chapter's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Committee, says many NDIA chapters offer outreach programs, grants to support computer science and technical teachers, and other similar initiatives.

Other professional organizations offer competitions with comparable goals too. The SANS Institute, a global cooperative organization of computer and IT experts established to help protect electronic information, oversees the US Cyber Challenge, a program that comprises several related competitions and workshops held regionally and nationally.

Additional offerings include regional “summer camps” in three states for young adults interested in computer security; scholarships; and a range of competitive, team-oriented computer security challenges.

Courtesy of Pacific Technology School