Deadline looms for CyberPatriot competition

Air Force Association contest attracting high school teams from around the country

With a month to go before the Oct. 8 deadline for registration, the CyberPatriot high school cybersecurity competition has attracted teams from 300 high schools in 45 states and Japan to compete for a national title in network protection next spring in Washington.

The competition, put on by the nonprofit Air Force Association, is part of a national effort to identify future cybersecurity professionals to fill a critical shortage of trained workers needed to defend the nation’s critical infrastructure.

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"The most critical problem I see is that we don’t have enough people growing up and wanting to be involved with this,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Bernie Skoch, who is heading up the competition for the AFA. “Our fundamental premise is that we have to engage students in high school or earlier.”

The broader goal is not just cybersecurity recruitment, but to motivate students to consider science, technology, engineering and math programs in high school, areas in which the United States lags compared with many other developed nations.

The name of the program for the 2010-2011 school year is CyberPatriot III, but this is the first full-scale competition. A proof of concept with eight teams from Florida was held in February 2009, and as pilot program attracted 200 teams during the 2009-2010 school year. The pilot competition was opened to Junior ROTC and Civil Air Patrol programs and the winner of that competition was a JROTC team from Utah’s Clearfield H.S.

"For the first time we’re opening this nationwide,” Skoch said. This year’s contest has two divisions, an All Service Division open to JROTC and Civil Air Patrol programs and an Open Division for teams from any high school. Teams consist of from two to five high school students with a coach. Teams have been registered this year from every state except Connecticut, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, and Skoch said he expects to see those states represented by the registration deadline. There also is a JROTC team registered from a Defense Department school for military families in Japan.

AFA provides online instructional materials to prepare the students, as well as online qualification rounds for the competition. The program is fundamental, not necessarily targeted at the “alpha geeks,” Skoch said.

“We are reaching and teaching the average student,” he said. “We think the highly mathematical and technical students are going to be involved anyway.”

The CyberPatriot program has been incorporated into a larger effort, dubbed U.S. Cyber Challenge, kicked off by a coalition of government and industry groups to help begin filling the human resources pipeline for the cybersecurity professionals that will be needed in coming years. It includes efforts to:

  • Identify students with the right talents and interests.
  • Establish “cyber camps” to foster those interests.
  • Create national competitions to increase awareness of the profession.
  • Establish scholarship programs.
  • Provide internships and jobs.

CyberPatriot is part of the first step of the program, a talent search with with a number of high school and college level competitions that have been developed in recent years. They also include the DC3 Digital Forensics Competition, hosted by the Defense Department’s Cyber Crime Center, and the NetWars Capture the Flag, a SANS Institute penetration testing competition.

CyberPatriot teams pay a $350 registration fee, and a number of companies are providing financial support and technical expertise. Northrop Grumman is the primary sponsor, and other sponsors include SAIC, CIAS, Raytheon, Microsoft and General Dynamics.

Plans are being made to accommodate up to 500 teams in each division. In a preliminary phase teams will qualify and go through a series of online competitions. The field will be reduced to 125 teams in each division this year and then to 36 teams. The All Service Division will have an onsite competition to select five finalists at the Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando in February. Those finalists, along with 12 finalists selected online from the Open Division, will compete head to head in a championship round at the Cyber Futures Conference at National Harbor, Md., in April.

The Air Force Association training materials for the teams, including training and instructional videos and five educational modules for coaches that include:

  • Instruction in fundamental concepts of information assurance and cybersecurity.
  • The interdependency of physical and cyber security, the impact of policy and use of awareness training.
  • Complexities of data and voice traffic on networks and shared infrastructures, and countermeasures for network-based threats.
  • Major operating system functions and OS threats and defenses.
  • Application threats and defenses and securing personal information.

The educational information and the requirements of the competition are basic, Skoch said.

“It starts at ground zero,” he said. “There are no prerequisites other than the desire. We want to be able to reach the kids who have not considered this before.”


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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