Longs Peak Middle School students learn cybersecurity basics

Originally published in the Longmont Times-Call >>

Longs Peak Middle School eighth-grader Carmen Oliveros started coding in elementary school and now is tackling protecting computers from hackers.

"It's opened a whole new world of computers," she said. "I'm learning a lot of cool security ideas."

Carmen is one of about a dozen students learning to combat online threats in the Longmont school's new cybersecurity club.

LogRhythm, a Boulder-based cybersecurity firm, partnered with the school to support instruction and cover the cost of technology upgrades and competition registration. Two employees also are working with the students as mentors.

Longs Peak STEM teacher Colin Rickman, who co-sponsors the club with science teacher Kyle Ham, said the club wouldn't have happened without LogRhythm's involvement.

"I'm not an expert, so they've been a huge help," he said.

The two mentors from LogRhythm working with the students are software engineer Mario Amato and quality assurance engineer Todd Edmands.

"It's an opportunity to teach kids some of the skills that will be necessary as we continue our evolution in computers," Amato said. "It's sparking their interest."

Edmands, who also teaches a cybersecurity class at Regis University, said he wishes a similar opportunity had been available when he was in middle school.

"These Longs Peak students will have a huge advantage," he said.

The competitions are run by CyberPatriot, part of the National Youth Cyber Education Program of the Air Force Association, an independent military and aerospace education nonprofit.

The program encourages students to consider careers in cybersecurity and other STEM fields, which face a worker shortage.

Longs Peak's students are participating in their first round of competition at the school today. The first two rounds are held at the school, while the next level will be a statewide competition.

For the competitions, students assume the role of system administrators protecting a virtual company's network by finding and eliminating cybersecurity vulnerabilities while maintaining critical functions.

Along with Longs Peak, Altona Middle School also is participating this school year — and was the first district school to start a CyberPatriots club.

At Longs Peak, Rickman said, winning isn't the main goal.

"The competitions give then something genuine to work towards," he said. "It's learning by doing. The end result is kids are interested and engaged."

Ham added that the cybersecurity tasks are teaching tenacity.

"The students have been good at persevering through problems that seem really hard," she said.

On Thursday, the students went through an exercise similar to what they might see in a competition, completing tasks around password policies, securing accounts and securing the operating system.

Students, who had to apply for spots in the club, bring varying levels of computer science experience.

On the more experienced side is eighth-grader Lucius Kadlecek, who said he's been a computer enthusiast "all my life."

"Stuff like this super cool," he said. "It's also important as we get more into technology. There's a lot to learn."

Seventh-grader Arianna Pichardo said her computer science experience is limited, but she wanted to learn more.

"I was curious to see if I liked it," she said.