By Thomas Brading, Army News ServiceAugust 9, 2019
FORT MEADE, Md. -- It started with a school's call for help.
In computer labs across the nation, students train for the country's largest annual cyber defense contest, CyberPatriot. However, without the tools and guidance needed, one school lost its competitive edge --- until a group of cyber professionals volunteered to help.
Competition sponsors at the Air Force Association reached out to U.S. Army Cyber Command and the National Security Agency. The commands senior enlisted leader called for technical volunteers hoping to reinvigorate the school's depleting program, and that's when 1st Lt. Conner Wissmann, 781st Military Intelligence Battalion cyberspace operations officer, answered the call.
The CyberPatriot club at Meade High School was small, there was no Computer Science program or technical school staff member. Their students were struggling, disinterested, and their outdated technology needed improvement -- but most of all, the club desperately needed military volunteers to mentor its members.
Shortly after the request, Wissmann, a 2017 West Point graduate, became lead mentor for the school's CyberPatriot Club. He, along with Army civilian volunteers, dedicated countless hours to recharge the program and inspire its students. Their goal was to prepare kids for a national competition that challenged their cyber knowledge.
CyberPatriot is a national youth cyber education program created by the Air Force Association, designed to inspire students toward careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- STEM -- disciplines critical to the nation's future, according to the AFA website.
Volunteering is a call to action, Wissmann said, adding that he serves the community because "it's the right thing to do."
In addition, it's his community. Wissmann graduated high school down the road from MHS, at Old Mill High in Millersville, Md. He understands the students, because he's from the same school district they are, Anne Arundel County Public Schools.
As a cyberspace expert, Wissmann also understands the curriculum needed to win. He helped design the course, provided input and used it to equip students with skills needed to excel, such as cyber security and computer technology.
The curriculum, spearheaded by Daniel Sorensen, another club volunteer and Army cyber analyst, wasn't only used at Meade High, it was adopted by the AFA earlier this year, and implemented into computer labs across the nation, becoming a blueprint for all CyberPatriot educators.
However, Wissmann believes it's the students who do the real work. "We're just volunteers," he said, adding, as coach, his job is to "steer" the club in the right direction. He became coach following the unexpected death of the team's original coach last year, and plans to relinquish the role once a new computer science teacher is hired.
Wissmann, along with his partners from USCYBERCOM and NSA, recently came together to teach students about cybersecurity during a two-week Cyber Security Summer Camp at the school. The camp was divided by skill level, and combined the common objectives of Meade High, the AFA, and the U.S. Cyber Command's STEM goals.
The first week was designed for novice students who, according to Wissmann, learned "the basics of computer technology." The second week, which wrapped up today, was for older, more advanced students, and taught them how to transfer their cyber knowledge into technical careers.
The summer camp was designed to roll into the school year, Wissmann said, and give students a chance to sharpen their cyber skills before locking horns in the national contest at the center of the AFA program, CyberPatriot.
After the school year kicks off, teams of five from across North America are "thrown into a big pool" to compete on the last Friday of each month, Wissmann said, taking on various cyber exercises, like how to overcome security threats.
Schools may have multiple teams vying to win, depending on the size of their club. For example, a club with 30 members could have up to six teams competing at various age levels at once.
When Wissmann arrived in November 2018, there were only a handful of students involved in the club. Now, after a successful run as mentor and coach, he expects more than 40 to join this upcoming school year.
This newly sparked interest comes after a successful run at CyberPatriot last school year. Two teams from the school ranked among the highest in the nation, receiving a Silver and Gold-tier ranking, respectively, and overall, achieving the school's highest scores to date.
It's not just about awards, however, the club also focuses on the future.
We are helping kids with job applications, letters of recommendation, and just pointing them in the right direction when needed, said April Taylor-Melton, club volunteer and 781st Military Intelligence Battalion information technology specialist. "If there are scholarships, internships, or programs that students (about to graduate) don't know about, we're here to help them."
There was more good news for the school. This year, it received $200,000 through grants to revamp the computer lab hire a computer science teacher -- who will eventually take the helm as cyber coach -- and continue sponsoring the computer summer classes.
"Wissmann selflessly dedicated himself to these students, and his hard-work changed their lives, and the face of education at Meade High," said Gina Giles, AFA coordinator. "These volunteers are my heroes."