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CyberPatriot at R-MA: A Student’s Perspective

The CyberPatriot Program was created by the Air Force Association as the National Youth Cyber Education Program. Its goal is to inspire students towards careers in Cybersecurity, which is, in a world relying more and more on computers and networks, absolutely vital to the nation's future. The main part of the program is the annual National Youth Cyber Defense Competition.

The competition tasks students with fixing security vulnerabilities and hardening the security of a computer system. The rounds of the competition take place on emulations of the Windows and Ubuntu (Linux) operating systems; these emulations are more technically called virtual machines. During the competition, competitors are given virtual images that are played on the virtual machines. The images are system settings that have been configured by competition designers to simulate the working computers of small companies. They, of course, have many cybersecurity vulnerabilities and flaws such as malware and poor security policies that leaves the network open to attack. It is up to competitors to fix the vulnerabilities and harden the security of the cyber-working environment. Competitors earn points for resolving security issues and vulnerabilities. However, any action that lessens the security of the network or compromises computer functions needed by the simulated company will result in losing points. As a Cisco partner, the CyberPatriot competition also uses Cisco’s Networking Academy and Network Packet-Tracer programs to test networking abilities in the form of quizzes and networking activities.

As a competitor, my CyberPatriot experience has been rewarding enough that I’ve spent quite some time just thinking about all that I’ve learned. Aside from the technical side of things, CyberPatriot also teaches all the dynamics of a team; this starts with team organization. Every member of the VA-091st AFJROTC CyberPatriot team has his or her role to fill, whether it’s working on Windows, Ubuntu, Cisco Networking, or acting as an assistant for those who are working on the systems. Coordinating all team members to work as smoothly and efficiently as possible was, as expected, a challenge and we didn’t quite succeed in doing so. Making mistakes, however, teaches you and your teammates to step back, think about the issue, and do the task better. I’ve learned a lot about team-building from the mistakes that we’ve made. 

There is one inherent flaw in any team that’s perfect: no one is learning anything if everyone already knows how to do things perfectly. CyberPatriot is what has allowed me to truly understand how mistakes are learning opportunities. Another thing CyberPatriot has taught me is how important your teammates are. We had a lot of people on the CyberPatriot team at the start of the competitions and we did very well on the scoreboard. But when we did not have the full team later in the season, complications inevitably occurred. At one point, I was responsible for securing up to two operating systems. This meant I had half the time to work on all the challenges for which I was originally responsible. It was unsurprising that our scores dropped too when our numbers dropped, though we were still doing very well.

The most important member of the team, however, is our coach, retired Air Force MSgt Stephen Pederson. Even though he had no experience at the beginning of this year’s competition, many of the things he was still able to do drastically helped the team during the competitions. For instance, he was able to enlist the help of the local CAP unit that was also competing. A firm advocate for STEM careers, he has also just completed his CISCO CyberPatriot Instructor training and is creating a new CyberPatriot curriculum for R-MA competitors that will be based on the current “CyberPatriot IX Master Content Course.” He hopes to extend the curriculum into teaching not just the technical skills of the competition, but also how those skills, along with the systems and networks the cadets work with, apply to real life. He also aims to arrange online video interviews with cybersecurity experts that can answer technical questions as well as questions about the cybersecurity career field. He is hoping to also give students opportunities to talk to the NSA, which has many summer student programs and scholarship programs in cybersecurity. MSgt Pederson is also working on getting competition laptops and a network server for the team. 

The team has achieved very high rankings during the past two years, the only two times in which it has competed. It managed to take first-in-state the gold tier both years. Looking into the future, things that will make R-MA’s already prestigious CyberPatriot team even more special are not just the dedicated and talented Air Force Junior ROTC cadet competitors, but also the dedication of the R-MA staff members. Aside from the aforementioned MSgt Pederson, many of the other faculty members are also determined to making the team a “powerhouse,” as retired Air Force Brig Gen David C. Wesley, president of R-MA, aims for the team to be.