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Shattering the cybersecurity glass ceiling

An all-girls squad from D’Evelyn Junior High School code and collaborate their way to the national CyberPatriot competition.

February 4, 2019

By Amanda Miller

Outdated operating systems. Users without a password. Unsecured media files.

Potential data breaches were around every line of code during the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot youth cybersecurity competition held Saturday at Red Rocks Community College.

No matter the cybersecurity flaws thrown at the all-girls squad from Jefferson County’s D’Evelyn Junior/Senior High School, they found the potential vulnerabilities and worked together to find the best fixes.

Sitting side-by-side behind laptops and monitors, the D’Evelyn team composed of seventh- and eighth-grade students examined a series of images to find vulnerabilities in a simulated network of a small business that won a government contract and needed to secure its system.

“Our (team’s) job was to make sure that the computers were secure and to make sure there weren’t any back doors hackers could sneak through,” explained team leader Aishani Dutta, an eighth-grader.

Their strategy during the four-hour competition was part divide-and-conquer and part collaboration, she explained. For instance, the squad divvied up specialization in specific computer systems for maximum efficiency.

This was D’Evelyn’s first year competing in CyberPatriot, a program for middle- and high-school students that teaches the fundamentals of securing computer networks. The middle-schoolers made it through the state-level round to compete in Saturday’s regional semifinals. Only three middle-school teams, yet to be announced, will advance to the national finals, a tournament known as the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition and held in Baltimore.

Two experts from Metropolitan State University of Denver volunteered to coach the D'Evelyn team: Professor of Criminology Jeffrey London, Ph.D., and Professor of Mathematical and Computer Sciences Steve Beaty, Ph.D., who teaches in the University’s cybersecurity bachelor’s program and will also teach in a cybersecurity master’s program launching this fall. Students in RRCC's cybersecurity specialist associate degree program also served as CyberPatriot mentors.

MSU Denver professors Steve Beaty and Jeff London check in with D
MSU Denver professors Steve Beaty and Jeff London check in with D'Evelyn students Alexandra Holland, Reilly Harrington and Aishani Dutta during the CyberPatriot semi finals at Red Rocks Community College, Feb. 2, 2019. Photo by Sara Hertwig.

Many of today’s high-profile data breaches could be prevented by the very techniques that these students are learning in middle school, Beaty said.

From the government’s defense against cybersecurity threats by rogue nations to corporations’ protection of their customers’ personal information, “even small companies have a need for this type of protection,” he said.

The CyberPatriot competition has “exploded” from a handful of teams to more than 6,000 middle- and high-school teams in a decade, said the organization’s national commissioner, Bernie Skoch, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general who runs the program put on by the Air Force Association.

The nonprofit association recognized a threat to national security in data showing that American students were falling behind those in other countries in the fields collectively known as STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, Skoch said.

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D'Evelyn student Jin Kim concentrates on her task during the CyberPatriot semi finals at Red Rocks Community College, Feb. 2, 2019. Photo by Sara Hertwig

Familiarizing so many young people with cybersecurity skills could one day help connect them with hundreds of thousands of unfilled jobs, Skoch noted. The competition is sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation, and the likes of Boeing, Cisco, AT&T and Microsoft also support CyberPatriot.

But the workforce benefits are secondary, Skoch said. CyberPatriot hopes the mystique surrounding “cyber” and kids’ competitive nature spark a broader interest in STEM.

Recognizing that women are underrepresented in many STEM fields, CyberPatriot works to get more girls involved by waiving the fees for all-girl teams such as that from D’Evelyn.

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From left, D'Evelyn students Alexandra Holland, Reilly Harrington, Aishani Dutta, Ella Thomas, Jin Kim and Lydia Tan work together during the CyberPatriots competition at Red Rocks Community College, Feb. 2, 2019. Photo by Sara Hertwig.

Dutta already wanted to be an engineer but said she knew virtually nothing about cybersecurity. Then she heard about CyberPatriot over D’Evelyn’s school announcements. She joined, hoping to learn more about computers, but found the team aspects to be the most rewarding. Her team’s strength is that the girls work well together, she said.

“The best thing was getting to work with everyone and working with them to fix the problems,” she said.