Niwot High girls’ cybersecurity teams excel at national challenge

Story originally published in the Left Hand Valley Courier >>

There’s an old saying that “To catch a thief, you have to think like one.” For five intense days, two teams of Niwot High School (NHS) girls rewired their thought processes to compete in a computer security challenge to thwart cybercrime.

Stepping into the virtual shoes of hackers, the teams out-performed their competitors admirably. The Coding Cougars team, made up of Julia Curd (sophomore), Davita Bird (sophomore), Michelle Tran (senior) and Aileen Ma (senior) finished first in the state and ninth in the nation. Team Niwot, comprised of Valorie Myhre (sophomore), Subi Bhatt (freshman), Kay Altshuler (sophomore) and Esther Xu (sophomore) finished seventh in the state.There were 93 teams competing from Colorado.

Computer science teacher and team advisor Teresa Ewing announced the opportunity to take part in the competition and encouraged her students to form teams on their own. From there, she let the teams work independently.

Girls Go CyberStart is a competition sponsored by The SANS Institute, an education and research organization whose task it is to train IT security professionals around the world. Other competitions they run are geared toward open groups of competitors, but this all-girl challenge brought together over 2,700 teams from 16 states and American Samoa.

Worldwide, cyber crime is rampant and predicted to cost $6 trillion annually by next year as estimated on

Techopedia defines cybercrime as being “a crime in which a computer is the object of the crime (hacking, phishing, spamming) or is used as a tool to commit an offense. Cybercriminals may use computer technology to access personal information, business trade secrets or use the internet for exploitive or malicious purposes (fraud, identity theft, bank fraud). Criminals can also use computers for communication and document or data storage. Criminals who perform these illegal activities are often referred to as hackers.”

NHS Girls Go CyberStart competition participants Subi Bhatt, Davita Bird, Aileen Ma, Esther Xu, Julia Curd and Michele Tran. Missing: Valorie Myhre and Kay Altshuler.

Given the ever-increasing incidence and severity of results from internet crimes, information technology security positions are predicted to increase 28 percent from 2016 to 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The global cybersecurity workforce remains stagnant at just 11 percent and only 25 percent of workers in information technology are female overall, according to the 2017 Women in Cybersecurity Report, co-authored by The Executive Women’s Forum on Information Security, Risk Management and Privacy and the Center for Cyber Safety and Education, which partnered with (ISC)2.

Cybersecurity Ventures also predicts that worldwide, there will be a shortage of 3.5 million workers in the field by 2021. Organizations like the SANS Institute are pressing the agenda to bring attention to the excitement of the field, including inspiring more females to head down this career path.

There are many groups offering middle school and high school students prizes to compete in the realm of computer security, including Carnegie Mellon and ​​​​CyberPatriot, the National Youth Cyber Education Program created by the Air Force Association. Hopes are that learning about the field will entice more young people to enter the profession.

The challenges faced by the NHS teams during the Girls Go CyberStart event were considered novice-level initially, with a gradual progression to more rigorous exercises in cryptography, forensics, programming, web attacks, and Linux. This experience was a good pilot program for the world of cybersecurity, especially since none of the team members had participated in this type of contest before.

To move on to each subsequent step in the competition, teams had to submit the correct answer for the previous question, and they were able to try to solve each challenge as often as necessary.

“We were really thrown into the deep end,” Tran said, “and had to learn on our own terms and at our own pace.”

“What I liked most was incorporating problem-solving, looking for the logical perspective, and how it would be solved in real life,” Bhatt said.

Finding hidden codes, decrypting images, finding security flaws (such as poor passwords), being discerning with what is divulged through social media, learning how to recover lost data, and exposure to computer programming languages were areas of emphasis during the competition.

NHS senior Avi Moskoff was an important cog during the challenge. He has extensive experience with similar competitions and guided the girls with suggestions for basic strategies to solve the puzzles. Students were also given hints by the challenge organizers to help them along.

As smart and hardworking as each participant was, it’s clear the chance to work within teams made it all the more fun. Each member’s strengths were tapped and time working together on the challenge made it all the more gratifying. They gathered for a celebratory pizza and cake lunch and zealously expounded on the positives of their time spent on the competition.

“The point of cybersecurity,” Ma said, “is to share the knowledge with others.”

“I learned more doing this than in the last four years,” Curd said. “I would definitely do more competitions in the future.”

When asked about how much time they had dedicated to the competition, it seemed impossible to calculate.

“After we had worked on it for several days during the week, we spent all of Saturday and Sunday together, Bird said. “It was hours on end and I didn’t realize how long it had been until it was 10 p.m.“

Winning first in state meant a check for $750 to the school, as well as a Chromebook and a $50 gift certificate for each team member. With the school winnings, the group is forming a Cybersecurity Club for both boys and girls in order to enter more cybersecurity competitions. They’re going to get the word out through school announcements and putting up posters.

The Girls Go CyberStart competition web page explains the purpose of the competition: “Because in the not-so-distant future, your generation will be the people protecting the U.S. from cyber-attacks and ensuring our online world is a safe place to live, work and play.”

Hackers beware - Niwot is promoting a generation of knowledgeable, capable students who can take you on.