CyberPatriots from North Hollywood High School prepare for national championship [Daily News, Los Angeles :: ]
(Daily News (Los Angeles, CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 18--With much of their school year focused not on the three R's but on the big D -- cyber defense -- kids from North Hollywood High are working to defend computers and their networks against attack.
Their efforts culminate March 28 in the finals of CyberPatriot VI, in which 26 teams in two divisions vie for trophies, scholarships and, for some, internships. The months-long event is part of the Air Force Association's National Youth Cyber Education Program, established six years ago to give students a taste of what it would be like to work in a growing sector tasked with protecting the nation's all-important information superhighway.
North Hollywood High School's Azure team -- Travis Raser, Henry Birge-Lee, Isaac Kim, Issac Kimand and Jake King -- is one of the school's six teams to enter the competition. But it's one of only 12 CyberPatriot groups from around the country to qualify in the Open High School Division. Also representing Southern California are El Segundo and Palos Verdes Peninsula high schools.
In a separate, 14-team All Service Division, consisting of youth programs with military ties, is the Civil Air Patrol Beach Cities Squadron 107 Knights, based at Torrance Airport.
"When we first realized we made the nationals we were just ecstatic," says Raser, 16, who joined the team a year ago. "Our goal was to get to nationals and go from there. We were just over the moon. It was really incredible. This is going to be a very important field in the future, and it's a great experience to have."
North Hollywood High computer science teacher Jay Gehringer coaches cyber defense as part of L.A. Unified's Beyond the Bell before- and after-school activity programs. "We're the dominant program in the western United States," he said proudly.
Today's teens are what some call "digital natives," he noted, born into an age of ever advancing technology. "These kids grow up with it all their lives. It's not a big deal for them -- they just understand it," Gehringer said of the precision knowledge needed.
Azure has been preparing about 20 hours a week, including Saturdays, with Gehringer arranging field trips and guest mentors to bolster their knowledge. For example, they recently visited the FBI computer forensics lab in Orange and worked with a network engineer from networking stalwart Cisco.
The actual "bouts" are six hours long, and though mentally grueling for the participants, they're not exactly captivating for the audience.
"The competitions are like watching paint dry for adults. Just imagine watching a kid work for six hours on a computer," Gehringer said with a chuckle.
The program has been embraced by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has 92 teams encompassing about 300 students, said Carey Peck, who has managed LAUSD's Cyber Patriot program since it started three years ago. "The district puts together more teams than all but four states."
Alvaro A. Cortés, Beyond the Bell's executive director, feels it's a natural fit for students. "We got lucky, as adults normally do, with the kids. We started a program that attracted students, (piqued) their interest," he said. "Once you give kids a skill and they have a passion for it, they will go at it 24/7."
For CyberPatriot VI, there are three rounds of competition, which initially attracted 1,556 teams and 9,336 students. Each round has a 36-hour window, and teams have six hours to complete very precise tasks once activating their computers.
The students are sent software through a "virtual" computer installed on their local machines. They have to identify threats, disable them and harden the machine to future attacks.
"Their job was to protect the network from any malware or threats like (infected) email," said Diane Miller, director of the program for the Northrup Grumman Foundation, the presenting sponsor.
In the finals, which will be conducted at a Washington-area hotel, students will also have to fight off attacks from "red team" cyber-sleuths.
Members of the winning team each receive a $2,000 scholarship; second place kids get $1,500, third $1,000. An internship at Northrop Grumman is also a possibility.
What starts out as an after-school hobby could actually change the direction of someone's life. "There are all sorts of different ways to develop a career in cyber-security," Miller said. "There's something for everyone."
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