Altona students advance in CyberPatriots competition

Results for ten Altona Middle School CyberPatriot teams from the January 13 state round of CyberPatriot IX, the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, were announced late last week.

Learning and competing in cybersecurity for the first time, the Altona students have continued their spectacular performance in this third round with seven teams advancing to the semi-final, or regional round, on February 4.

CyberPatriot is part of the National Youth Cyber Education Program of Air Force Association, designed to encourage students to consider careers in cybersecurity and other science, technology, engineering and math-related fields. The Air Force Association is an independent military and aerospace education nonprofit in Virginia.

With 34 teams, Colorado ranks fourth in participation among 39 states after California, Texas, Virginia and Alabama. Altona represents nearly 30 percent of Colorado teams.

“In the spring, we thought we could get maybe one or two teams. We were hoping for ten kids and we had 50. We could have had more but we had to cap it off. It is an awesome first round, we could not have hoped for better,” said Dan Massey, of Longmont, cybersecurity manager for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and father of two Altona CyberPatriots.

Familiar with CyberPatriots from his profession, Massey pitched the program to the school and now coaches five teams after school as a volunteer. Mollie Kelleher, computer science teacher and computer club advisor, coached 31 kids during the day and attended all after school meetings.

The competitions, lasting six hours, are tough. In teams of five, students assume the role of system administrators protecting a virtual company’s network by finding and eliminating cybersecurity vulnerabilities while maintaining critical functions.

“It is pretty much a long stretch of hours,” seventh-grader Sean Webb of Longmont said, “with 90 percent of the points made in the first five minutes.”

“After that it is a struggle. If you ask what sets the winners apart, it is that tenacity to not let the frustration take over,” Kelleher said.

But CyberPatriots is more than just intense problem-solving.

“No matter what they go on and do, having competed as a team, working with your teammates sharing expertise and resolving problems as a group, is essential. That is ultimately a life skill that will stick with them,” Massey said.

As well, Massey said that getting kids interested in cybersecurity early on is essential for addressing the shortage of cybersecurity workers.

“Cyberpatriots has helped me realize that it is fun. I think this would be really fun profession to do for a living,” seventh-grader Ethan Rauschkolb of Longmont said. Massey would be pleased.

For cyber-girls, there has been challenges and opportunities.

“That eighth team was six points short out of 600 available points – by a hair,” Kelleher said. “It was bittersweet. On the one hand, they were so happy they almost made it, but they were so sad that they did not. They were so close.”

However, with women representing 20 percent of collegiate computer science students, Kelleher is delighted to double that statistic with four out of ten all-girl teams.

Good luck on the 4th, CyberPatriots!