FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. - Whether or not they aspire to careers in cybersecurity, students across the U.S. have an opportunity to learn about cybersecurity from cyber and information technology (IT) experts as part of the Air Force Association's (AFA) CyberPatriot program.
At Meade Senior High School those mentors include Soldiers and Army civilians from the 780th Military Intelligence (MI) Brigade (Cyber) who volunteer to teach the students about cybersecurity during their off-duty hours.
"Allowing young people to work with, understand, and affect technology is one of the most rewarding things that anyone can do," said 1st Lt. Conner Wissmann, a cyberspace operations officer assigned to the 781st MI Battalion (Cyber), and a CyberPatriot mentor. "It's exceptionally gratifying to see students open doors through cyber; opportunities like scholarships and work study programs. At the end of the day, each student that goes home wanting to study technology is worth the sacrifice."
According to their webpage the AFA created the CyberPatriot program "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 its core, the CyberPatriot program is an annual high school and middle school competition. In last year's competition, 5,584 teams competed in an exercise that put "high school and middle school students in the position of newly hired IT professionals tasked with managing the network of a small company."
Wissmann said the training here has been going very well and the mentors have been working to provide hands-on practical exercises designed to give the students experience with the AFA competitions.
"The school has two teams currently in the AFA competition. Both teams far surpassed our expectations (last year), making it into the Gold Tier and Silver Semifinal rounds, respectively," said Wissmann. "Now that the 2018-19 round is over, we have some time to strengthen the students' cybersecurity skills and coordination, which will help make them more effective for next year."
April Taylor-Melton, an IT specialist assigned to the 781st MI Bn., said she volunteers as a CyberPatriot mentor because she wants to inspire other women and minorities to consider cyber and IT as potential career paths.
"I volunteer with the Meade Senior High School CyberPatriot team to show other females and minorities that they have a place in the cyber community. I initially started in information technology 15 years ago as a private first class in the Army. During my many years on the job there have been very few females, let alone minority females, in my field," Taylor-Melton said. "Currently, I am the only female that works in the S6 shop at the 781st. I would like others to see that it is very possible to not only work in the field, but be successful. The things that we teach the students at CyberPatriot will help set them up for success in the real-world industry. The things that we are teaching them are things we were required to get our jobs and maintain them in the ever-evolving world of technology."
Although the students at Meade Senior High School joined the CyberPatriot team for individual reasons, all said they appreciate the support of their mentors.
"I've always liked computers, and I have always wanted to work in a place that I'm surrounded by computers," said Edwin Ramirez, a Meade Senior High School sophomore. "I joined CyberPatriot because you can open the doors to many future opportunities, like a work study program that I'm very interested in."
Jhurianne Aquinde, a Meade Senior High School freshman, said she didn't know anything about CyberPatriot before she joined.
"At first I was just looking for opportunities; to find something that I'm actually good at and enjoy it at the same time, while being surrounded by people who think the same," Aquinde said. "This is probably the most 'opportunity-grabbing' program. There are so many cyber jobs. CyberPatriot gives you a lot of connections to people already in the field. It can get you further into the field faster than the people who don't have those connections."
Wissmann sees the holistic benefits of the CyberPatriot program for the students, the faculty, and the community.
"The CyberPatriot program gives different benefits to everyone," said Wissmann. "For the students it's a window into a field of study and opportunities that they wouldn't otherwise have, like scholarships and work study programs. For the coordinators and teachers, it helps to begin serious discussions about cybersecurity, raising awareness about a field that is deeply impactful to students throughout Anne Arundel County. And for the community, the competition and team help to create a sense of pride in the school, and we hope that as the program gains popularity it will raise awareness for education resources for all the students."
1st Sgt. Joel Aguilar, the senior enlisted leader for E Company, 782nd MI Bn., said he believes the brigade's Soldiers and Army Civilian employees are uniquely qualified to be mentors.
"CyberPatriot benefits the community by raising awareness of the digital dangers that become more and more prevalent in this digital day and age," Aguilar said.
"As members of the only offensive cyber brigade in the United States Army, we are uniquely qualified to teach cyber operations."
"The members of the brigade provide a unique mix of skills and experience that promote the success of the team," Wissmann added. "Offensive and defensive cyber security are part of the job for the members of our team, and that experience puts us in a unique position to help make cybersecurity lessons practical for the students.
"But the uniqueness doesn't stop with cybersecurity. The members of our team also bring life experience and mentoring to the students that they can't get anywhere else. It's inside- and outside-the-box mentoring that we hope will really strengthen the program in the months and years to come."
"I'm glad that they're here teaching us, because I don't see a normal teacher trying to show us how to do these things," said Ramirez.
For the remainder of the school year, the mentors plan to focus on computer science fundamentals, cybersecurity research, and defensive tools in preparation for next year's competition.
Additionally, Meade Senior High School is offering its first Cyber Summer Camp in 2019. A novice camp is planned from July 29 through August 2 for interested 9th and 10th graders, and for current CyberPatriot clubs throughout Anne Arundel County an advanced cyber summer camp is scheduled from August 5 to 9. Organizers expect more than 60 students from throughout the county to participate in the inaugural program.
Meade Senior High School students interested in joining CyberPatriot should talk to the CyberPatriot club sponsor, Maharlika Kaminski.