A group of students from Helen Keller Middle School placed first in the state at the 13th annual CyberPatriot competition. In addition, two teams made up of Easton students placed in the top three for the Gold Division.
The CyberPatriot website states, “CyberPatriot is the National Youth Cyber Education Program created by the Air Force Association to inspire K-12 students toward careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines critical to our nation’s future.”
Jon Stinson, who coaches the teams and chairs the Easton Board of Education, has been impressed with the rapid growth of participation since they started this educational initiative four years ago.
“The first-year-team of eighth graders at Helen Keller got first in the state,” Stinson said. “They actually did even better than that — they were first in the Northeast.” The initial group of eighth graders has now expanded into three different teams: an eleventh grade, a ninth grade, and a middle school team.
This year’s competition looked a bit different from years past. “This year was a bit hectic to say the least,” ninth grader Alexander Weiss said. “A huge part of the competition was being in the same room, in the same group and gathered around a computer together.”
This year, however, due to COVID-19, each team worked together virtually using screen sharing to gain as many points toward the competition as possible. The teams are tasked with cracking codes within manipulated operating systems like Windows and computer security networks. They are given six hours to crack as many codes as they can.
“Each person is given an operating system with a whole bunch of security holes in it,” Alexander said. “It could range anywhere from a few auditing things to complete password resets, to more advanced issues and fire protocols.”
When asked whether their computer science skills meant that they were considered big-time hackers, eleventh grader Jake Colangelo said, “It’s more whether or not we can understand if something is ‘hackable.’”
Though they practice together, the middle school and high school teams compete separately, and after the competition is over, the teams transition to different off-season projects.
“First year after the competition we watched this series of Harvard Lessons from Youtube about Coding 101, and C++, and that was really to keep our skills up from competition and learn more about the computer science aspect behind cybersecurity,” eleventh grader Alexis Ogrinz said.
This year’s off-season project is a Youtube channel called “Recently Deleted.” “We are looking to post some videos and really spread easy, simple, cyber security knowledge that everyone should know, more to the general public to help everyone keep their computers safe and secure,” Alexis said.
Jaylen Johnson is on the eleventh grade team and says you can help your computer’s safety by just turning on a few things that are already put in place.
“Not all of the computer systems that you get when you buy your computer have all the settings enabled that allow it to be the safest it can be,” Jaylen said. “There are things that you actually have to go in and turn on. Especially if you are running a business and you have multiple computers on the same network, like setting password requirements.”
The students and Stinson were adamant about the importance of working together as a team. “I think it’s really good to be in the environment with people you are friends with and people you can have a good time with while you do something this important,” Alexis said. “It not only cements the value of what you are doing socially but also the greater good of protecting a computer.”
Stinson’s son, Sam, completed his first year on the middle school team and said the virtual aspect was manageable but said the toughest part for him was the intensive time commitment. “The time on the competitions, that part was pretty overwhelming, but it’s not that bad when you have friends with you,” Sam said.
Coach Stinson has watched the students grow since they started this initiative four years ago and finds it hard to believe that they will be seniors next year graduating from high school. When asked how this experience has affected their future plans, the students agreed that these skills are something they plan to incorporate into their career decisions.
“I know this is something I want to do,” Jaylen said. “If not cyber security, something to do with computer science.” As Alexis puts it, “I think one of the greatest things I’ve taken away from this team, besides the cybersecurity and computer science aspect, is the ability to know how to effectively get the answers that I need to a problem.”