Clicking away on their laptops students on Marshall Academy’s CyberPatriot teams appear to be quietly working. Behind their focused expressions and on their computer screens, however, they are fighting a cyber war.
With just a few more practices before next week’s big CyberPatriot V National Finals Competition, which will welcome two Marshall teams, students have high hopes for winning this year.
The two teams already have bested most of the 1,225 teams nationwide to compete this year, a record number of participants according to competition organizers. Twenty-eight teams will compete at the finals.
“Last year, we were the only newly formed team to make it to the [national] finals,” team captain and senior Keven Houk, 18, said. “I think we’re going to do great because we’ve been practicing so much harder. And last year, we had no idea what to expect.”
Marshall Academy at Marshall High School will send two teams to the CyberPatriot V National Finals Competition at National Harbor (Md.) from March 14-16.
“This is our second year going back, and we know so much more about the competition,” said senior Alex Handley, 17. “We finished seventh out of 12 in the national finals [last year], so we’ve got high hopes we’ll do better this year.”
Marshall Academy offers a number of career-focused courses. Students heading to the national competition are enrolled in Computer Systems Technology A+.
The CyberPatriot competition is in its fifth year and is sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation, the charity arm of the large military defense and technology corporation.
“I’m personally doing this for the experience,” said junior Sepehr Ansaritour, 17. “As far as rankings go, I’m not expecting a first, but I have high hopes. My job [on the team] is to work with some of the Cisco tools … which allows you to diagram a network. It’s pretty advanced … I’m learning it from scratch. It’s a challenge.”
Along with the two teams from Marshall, Fairfax County Public Schools will be represented in the competition by a Chantilly Academy team. Chantilly Academy is in Chantilly High School. Teams are composed of five students with one alternate, so Marshall will send 12 students to the competition.
“The CyberPatriot program has offered most of these students something to work for,” said Marshall Academcy teacher Jason Simeon, who instructs the Computer Systems Technology A+ course. “Many of these students are not sure what they want to do as a career, and these competitions make it — cyber security — fun while teaching them quite a bit about the subject.”
Simeon’s students have been practicing Fridays and Saturdays in preparation for the competition. He said interest in cyber security and CyberPatriot is trending up in his two years at Chantilly.
Nationally, CyberPatriot is seeing a similar trend.
“When we started CyberPatriot, there were eight teams, and it was in the Orlando area,” said Diane Miller, Northrop Grumman Corporation’s CyberPatriot program director. The competition, she said, was begun by the nonprofit Air Force Association and geered mainly toward junior ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corp) students. Northrop Grumman became the competition’s corporate sponsor in 2010.
Since then, Miller said, the competition has enjoyed astronomical growth with student teams representing all 50 states and Canada.
“For the Northrop Grumman Foundation ... what they really get out of it is knowing that we’re helping to create the workforce of the future,” Miller said. “This is a concrete way to address the challenge head on.”
During the final round of competition, students will face a 3.5-hour challenge, where they must fight off a cyber attack.
“They have to quickly assess the situation ... and it’s all against the clock,” Miller said. “It’s pretty intense, so after 3.5 hours they are pretty wiped out.”
Marshall Academy student and junior Johnathon Hoyns, 17, said, “What we do is we have images that have vulnerabilities, and we have a checklist and we go through that. ... We’re checking for weaknesses.
“I’m usually just a video game person, but I’ve learned a lot of cool stuff about [cyber security] and about jobs.”
Each member of a first-place team receives a $2,000 scholarship. Second-place team members score a $1,500 scholarship and third-place winners earn a $1,000 scholarship.
Junior Yusif Atayev, 15, said joining Marshall Academy’s cyber-security club and participating in competitions such as CyberPatriot also has broadened his knowledge of security issues and possible jobs in cyber security.
“Every day people are being hacked and they need to be protected,” he said.