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Rolling Meadows’ cybersecurity team caps season with national competition

Rolling Meadows’ cybersecurity team caps season with national competition

Roughly 3,000 teams of high school students began this year's National Youth Cyber Defense Competition months ago. Only a dozen in the Open Division earned the right to compete in the late-March National Finals competition and one of these is from right here in High School District 214.

While that  team - composed of six Rolling Meadows High School students and coached by CTE teacher Michael Drenth - will not learn of its final competition standing until next week - their year has been outstanding by any measure.  In fact, you could say it’s been a very good year all the way around for Rolling Meadows’ cybersecurity competitors. Teams from Rolling Meadows -  including a few students from Elk Grove High School as well - swept the first three places in state competition, with “Team 101sec” qualifying for nationals.

What, exactly, is the CyberPatriot cybersecurity competition? By the sponsor’s description: “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. At the core of the program is the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, the nation's largest cyber defense competition that puts high school and middle school students in charge of securing virtual networks.”

Securing networks. Does anyone doubt the dire need for these skills in a world that brings us daily reports of financial, medical or other personal information being compromised and of other nations hacking into sensitive federal government information?

How does competition work? Rolling Meadows senior Minh Duong and Team 101sec member explains: “We basically get virtual computers with different operating systems. Think of it as your home PC, but they set it up so these computers have vulnerabilities, which, if exploited, can lead to compromise of personal information. Competition teaches you how to secure each of these and give you points for vulnerabilities you fix.”

National finals competition added a new element: Students not only had to identify and address vulnerabilities, they also faced the task of guarding against live hackers trying to make real time attacks.

One of Minh’s teammates, junior Audrey Wheeler, says District 214’s classroom work for the IT Career Pathway helps them prepare: “They throw a lot of curveballs at us in competition, and it’s impossible to prepare for every single little thing they throw at you. So, it helps to have a lot of general knowledge about operating systems and computers themselves.”

Minh and Audrey’s teammates are Hao Duong, Colin Parker, Rebecca Phillips and Kamil Podgorski.

Drenth declines to stake out credit for his teams’ successes. He’d rather focus on the many ways the competition blends with academic work to prepare students for success after graduation. 

“All of this is in its infancy stage, but in five to 10 years everything is going to be attached to the internet,” Drenth says. “Because the field is new, maybe 70 to 80 percent of people working in it have no formal education in cybersecurity. The big thing for us is looking to give skills in competition that, along with formal education, will put them ahead of the game once they’re in the job market.”