Highlands Ranch CyberPatriots: Our Future Cyber Protectors
HIGHLANDS RANCH - Equifax, Target, Yahoo... Unfortunately it is not uncommon to hear about— or fall victim to— data security breaches as computers become increasingly integrated into our lives. However, a generation of high school students are preparing to fill cybersecurity roles to help protect all of us against future attacks; and many of these future protectors are right here in Douglas County.
Meet the Highlands Ranch High School (HRHS) CyberPatriots. Now in its eighth year, the Career and Technical Education program is part of the national CyberPatriot program, which was created by the Air Force Association ten years ago as a way to inspire students to pursue careers in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)-related field.
“We need to protect the vulnerable,” says Melanie Pierce, one of the several HRHS students in CyberPatriots. “That’s part of what CyberPatriots is, and is starting to do at the elementary school level, as well as older people in order to protect them. For them, knowing little things like not clicking on emails from unknown senders with downloadable files in them can help them protect themselves.”
These CyberPatriots, though, are well beyond basic preventative measures when it comes to securing the data of the future. In fact, for the last few years, the school has successfully progressed through local and regional competitions all the way to national-level competitions held in Baltimore, Maryland. In a competition setting, students must identify and resolve computer insecurities, malware, and other vulnerabilities, as well as secure the system to prevent the security issues from occurring again. All of this must be completed within a six-hour window.
“During a competition, from a coach’s perspective, it’s nerve-wracking because I’m not allowed to help them,” says Nicky DeBolt, who is the CyberPatriots and Technology teacher at HRHS. “Unlike baseball or football where you can actually change plays and be involved in the game, with this I have to be hands-off. They have to know it or work it out themselves from start to finish.”
DeBolt explains that each competition leading up to regionals, and then nationals, becomes progressively harder. Using another baseball analogy (he did, after all, coach HRHS baseball for 16 years), DeBolt says it is unlike a sport that you can practice all year.
“By the time you get to nationals it’s a completely different sport. It’s football.”
DeBolt is a Colorado native and has spent his career in Douglas County School District, at first teaching third-grade at Summit View Elementary 22 years ago. It was there that he says he accidentally fell into technology education.
“It came up with my first classroom observation, and the assistant principal wasn’t able to print out the observation on his Stylus Writer 2, so I offered to help him fix his printer,” he says. “That got around and all of a sudden I became the tech guy at the school.”
It wasn’t completely foreign territory for DeBolt, as he minored in Computer Science in college. But the work inspired him enough that three years later he moved on to Highlands Ranch High School as a full-time technology teacher, where he’s been ever since.
DeBolt says the classroom setting for CyberPatriots is very self-driven, with students each moving at their own pace. Once they learn one assignment, they report to DeBolt to get their next assignment. Participating students became inspired themselves to get involved in CyberPatriots from a variety of sources, whether it was a desire to extend their computer science learning, encouragement by a friend already in the program, or encouragement by DeBolt.
“I was taking a lot of the technological electives here at school, progressing through to A.P. Computer Science, and eventually got to the end,” says student Devin Sharpe, who is a senior this year. “I wanted to find a way to extend this interest to be more involved. I was told about CyberPatriots and thought this is a new field where I can still use my computer science and technological knowledge but apply it in a new way to cybersecurity.”
Having just returned from their first competition of the year, in which they placed seventh in speed, the students’ enthusiasm for CyberPatriots is palpable. Of course, they say, not everyone in their lives quite gets it, though.
“I have tried numerous times to explain to my family what I’m doing,” says Pierce, shaking her head.
“When I show my parents what I’m doing they’ll say, ‘oh, that’s fun,’” laughs junior Kaylee Kirkwood. “You put in so much work and you learn so many cool things and nobody understands what you are doing. But it’s a really rewarding experience too, you feel really cool when you are doing it.”
Then there’s the stereotype— that they are “hackers.”
“With Linux, when I’m sitting there and a black popup screen of just text comes up, the first thing people say is ‘what are you hacking this time?’” laughs senior Bennett Atencio. “Depending on the color of the screen people think you are either hacking something or totally destroying the computer. It’s always funny to watch.”
“But CyberPatriots is DE-fensive,” DeBolt jumps in, emphasizing the DE in defensive. “We’re the blue team!”
Thanks to this experience, the students are now noticing computer systems with vulnerabilities in the real world.
“Whenever you go somewhere, you can tell when a machine isn’t totally secure,” says senior Katherine Rocha. “You can tell when you go to a doctor’s office and see their computer and think, ‘well that’s not really secure.’ It doesn’t really increase your trust and it makes you a lot more aware of what you are getting into.”
“This is something that can be applied outside of the competition and is useful in the real world, and it’s turning into a really big field,” adds Sharpe. “Security is security, whether it be physical security involving law enforcement or cybersecurity. We’re the police of the internet. There will always be attacks on databases and other online forums and computers, and there has to be people out there protecting against these things.”