The Colonel Smith Middle School CyberPatriots, a seven-student cyber security team, competed in the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot Middle School Cyber Education Program and finished third in the National Semifinals, which were held at Cochise College, Jan. 17.
This makes them the third in the nation, as only two teams will compete in the Finals in Washington, D.C.
“CyberPatriot is the premier national youth cyber education program created to inspire high school and middle school students toward careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines critical to our nation’s future,” according to the website, www.uscyberpatriot.org.
This year was the first opportunity for middle school students to participate in the program, which was previously open only to high school students since its creation in 2009.
With only three weeks to prepare, Smith Middle School ramped up the first-ever team to compete in the first round of the competition in November. With assistance from mentors in the local community, parents and Kay Hawkins, the team coach and secretary to the superintendent, Fort Huachuca Accommodation School District, or FHASD, the team soared through each round.
“They kicked national tail. While just shy of the championship round, third in the nation is pretty darn good. This is a real ‘wow’ moment,” said Jerry Proctor, deputy to Fort Huachuca’s commanding general.
CyberPatriots have been characterized as the heroes of the Internet. The program teaches them to detect security threats in software programs and on the Internet, and correct them.
“For the most part they are doing what any IT personnel would be doing if they were to walk up to a computer and be told, ‘This is doing something funny, fix it,’” Hawkins explained.
During each round, the students’ goal is to improve the security of one or more virtual machine images. Improving security requires all of the following: maintaining critical services, hardening critical services, fixing vulnerabilities and removing malware from the systems.
Examples of vulnerabilities the teams may have experienced during the competitions include: software updates, prohibited files, digital forensics and advanced Windows security settings.
“The vulnerabilities aren’t as obvious as middle school students would like them to be,” Hawkins explained. “They don’t get a list of ‘fix this.’ What they get is a readme file that gives them a story or a background … and they have to find and fix the problems.”
Bonnie Austin, superintendent, FHASD, expressed great pride in the team members’ accomplishments. “It really was amazing what they could figure out,” she said.
“Sometimes with very high achieving students, they come in already mastering what learning you are putting in front of them. This is such an example of raising the bar to them, and they were challenged. It just fed into that learning process.”
The Smith Middle School CyberPatriots team consisted of: Justin McCrary, 13; Evan Scarborough, 13; Carson Rice, 12; Sabrina Pierre, 14 and Colin Owen, 13.
It wasn’t just the staff and leadership that were proud of the team — on the morning of the Semifinals competition, all students who are enrolled at Smith Middle School gathered outside and formed two lines, creating the path to the bus and cheering the CyberPatriots on as they departed for the event.
Even though they didn’t make it to Finals this year, that isn’t defeating these determined students. “They are already excited to begin competing in the next season and recruiting new team members,” Austin said. “This has been an outstanding accomplishment for this newly formed team.”