Students arrive in Washington, D.C. wearing embroidered leather jackets with logos and names stitched in bright colors on their sleeves. They’re members of different teams, but not sports teams. They are at the nation’s capitol for CyberPatriot’s National Youth Cyber Defense competition, the largest high school cyber defense competition in the United States.
By volunteering as mentors, we as Cisco employees can impact the future generations of network professionals who will protect the Internet of Everything from breaches and threats that are becoming more common as people, processes, data, and things become more connected.
CyberPatriot’s competition was created by the Air Force Association (AFA) in 2009 to inspire high school students to pursue careers in cybersecurity. Bernie Skoch, CyberPatriot National commissioner, stresses the importance of cybersecurity training as the number of breaches become more common on the Internet.
“There are 15,000 attacks per second in the United States,” he said. “We have a dire need for cybersecurity professionals in the United States, but we frankly aren’t drawing enough young men and young women” to the field.
The competition kicks off every year in October; during several rounds teams are tasked with fixing flaws in operating systems and their progress is recorded by the central CyberPatriot scoring system. More than 1500 teams registered for last year’s competition in 3 divisions: Open (high schools), All Service (community service and citizenship programs such as Junior ROTC) and Middle School.
At the end of the semifinals, the top 30 teams are invited to the National Finals Competition in Washington, D.C. There, they compete face-to-face to defend virtual networks, reducing known vulnerabilities like weak passwords and firewalls while protecting critical services such as email and web servers from attacks.
We’ve seen that the competition gets students excited about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by keeping them interested and engaged. CyberPatriot gives students a practical application and experience in STEM, helping them understand how they can establish a career in the cybersecurity field.
How Cisco Supports CyberPatriot
Cisco’s initial involvement started with some volunteer engineers building out a Local Area Network (LAN) for the initial CyberPatriot IV National Finals competition in March 2012. Based on that experience, we approached AFA with the idea that while the desktop-based competition presented a good opportunity to expose students to broader challenges in the cyber world, as the number and variety of connected devices increases, so do the number of potential cyber threats.
We asked to incorporate networking fundamentals into the competition that would give students knowledge to protect desktop computers and newer mobile devices against cyber attacks. Being a career IT guy himself, Bernie Skoch was thrilled and we began integrating Cisco components into CyberPatriot. Throughout the next two competition seasons, the Cisco role and content continued to grow.
After the first exhibition, there was tremendous enthusiasm for Cisco and the Cisco curriculum, which leverages tools developed for the Cisco Networking Academy program. This enthusiasm was a springboard to establish the Cisco Networking Challenge as a key component of the National Finals competition complete with trophies for the top teams.
One of the key takeaways from the CyberPatriot experience is that the camaraderie built within the teams is driving enthusiasm for STEM careers. Much like the real world experiences of Cisco engineers working as a team on major projects for customers – the students experienced success working together towards a common goal.
How You Can Support CyberPatriot
Cisco is participating in the US2020 initiative, with the goal of having 20 percent or more of employees volunteering at least 20 hours a year as a STEM mentor by 2020. I believe that CyberPatriot is a great way to get involved and help build foundations for potential careers in cybersecurity.
Employees (or anyone interested in getting involved) can sign up as volunteers on the CyberPatriot website. CyberPatriot will connect interested volunteers to a team in their local area.
Last year, more than 50 Cisco employees supported CyberPatriot, teaching students about networking security skills both on site at high schools and through WebEx.
Additionally, at last year’s national finals, we had two Cisco engineers on site who participated in mentoring sessions with the students where they were able to share personal stories of how they got into IT and started working at Cisco. A lot of engineers will tell the kids, “I was you, I was sitting in your chair, and I wish I had something like this to help get me focused.”
We’ve been amazed at the overwhelming enthusiasm that students have shown, especially during the national finals. They have such a desire to learn and expose themselves to the newest networking technology. In a recent survey of CyberPatriot graduates by the AFA, 80 percent of the respondents indicated they will pursue a 2-year or 4-year education program plan to study cybersecurity, computer science, or another STEM field, whereas the national average is only 13 percent.
Cisco employee volunteers are helping CyberPatriot impact future generations, giving them valuable knowledge and tools that will prepare them to defend against the growing number of cyber threats and attacks.