CyberPatriot program prepares cadets to combat unseen threats

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks

Attacks against the U.S. may not come only from land, sea or air.

The threat of adversaries compromising national security through cyberspace is very real.

Arnold Air Force Base, headquarters of the Arnold Engineering Development Complex, continues to do its part to bolster national cyber defense by introducing high school students to cybersecurity, possibly leading some to pursue careers in this vital field.

Arnold AFB sponsors several local CyberPatriot teams.

According to its official website, CyberPatriot is a 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, or STEM, disciplines critical to the nation’s future.

“The Air Force Association sponsors the CyberPatriot STEM program for the purpose to expose military cadets of all services to cybersecurity challenges and teaches them vulnerabilities with computers that are networked. This leads to interest among the cadets and potential career choices once they graduate and join the military,” said AEDC senior engineer, Technical Management, Michael Glennon, who has been a mentor for the CyberPatriot program for more than eight years. Glennon’s time as a mentor has included work with Air Force Junior ROTC program at Coffee County Central High School and SkillsUSA programs throughout the region. 

At the core of the CyberPatriot program is the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition. This is the country’s largest cyber defense competition that puts high school and middle school students in charge of securing virtual networks.

Glennon said the competition challenges student teams to find and fix cybersecurity vulnerabilities in virtual operating systems. Teams are scored on how secure they make the system. Top teams advance through the online round of competition, and the best advance to the in-person national finals competition. Each team has two challenges during a 6-hour competition period: the Network Security Challenge, which involves finding and fixing security vulnerabilities in Windows and Linux operating systems; and the Cisco Networking Challenge, which consists of an online quiz and virtual networking exercise based on specific training materials.

Each CyberPatriot team is assigned to one of three divisions – Open Division, All Service Division or Middle School Division.

This year’s participants from the Marine Corps Junior ROTC program at Tullahoma High School made up two teams in the All Services Division. Each of these teams were comprised of a coach, technical mentor and the cadets themselves. Col. Jeffrey Johnson, a retired U.S. Marine Corps, senior Marine Corps instructor, served as the coach, and Glennon was the technical advisor.

Beginning in July 2020 and continuing through this February, the Tullahoma High School squads, collectively known as the CyberCats, participated in several learning and practice rounds.

The CyberCats team met at least once per week. Additional time was dedicated to practice and participation in official scored rounds.

“Specifically, the CyberCats cadets were challenged nine times by testing gained knowledge from learning rounds called ‘exhibition rounds,’ practice rounds called ‘training rounds,’ an official practice round and scored live rounds,” Glennon said. “It all starts with understanding how operating systems contain vulnerabilities where the cadets are exposed to 10 detailed and technical description presentations of how to secure misconfigured operating systems. From this point, the mentor works with the cadets for an understanding of the technical concepts and explains the importance of each action to secure the different operating systems. Each of the cadet teams works together to gain knowledge to effectively compete with other high school All Service Division teams across the United States.”

The official CyberPatriot competition season began this past September with more than 6,700 registered teams across the country - 673 of which were in the All Service Division.

Following multiple rounds of what Glennon described as “rigorous” online challenges, the Open Division and All Service Division teams were divided into three tiers: Platinum, Gold and Silver. Teams then competed within their tiers for state awards and advancement to the semifinal round. Teams in the Platinum tier were eligible to advance to the national finals competition.

The most recent competition marked only the fourth year the Tullahoma High School MCJROTC has had a CyberPatriot team. Teams from the school have previously competed at Platinum and Gold tiers.

“Cadets are committed to learning and strive to excellence,” Glennon said. “The STEM program exposes the high school cadets to cyber and internet vulnerabilities, providing them with insight to both military and commercial networking risks. This skill is highly sought after when the cadets graduate.”

After finishing the CyberCats CyberPatriot training in February, the cadets transitioned to learning electronics and programming in C++ language. During this training, the cadets learned on an Arduino development board to obtain a better understanding of how electronic components are wired and used. They were also exposed to structured SparkFun inventor’s kits that ranged from simple flashing light-emitting diodes to more complicated designs dealing with temperature sensors, servo motors, relays, liquid crystals displays and game programming.

Glennon added Arnold AFB has supported STEM to advocate technical excellence and to foster community outreach to middle and high schools located in close proximity to the base since Arnold established a formal STEM program in 2010 after receiving a grant from the National Defense Education Program. He said CyberPatriot is just one of the many STEM activities supported by Arnold.

“The Marine Corps Junior ROTC program at Tullahoma High School is a direct reflection of the outstanding leadership of both Col. Johnson and Sgt. Maj. Richard Ramirez, retired U.S. Marine Corps, Tullahoma High School Marine Corp JRTOC instructor,” Glennon said. “Without the dedication of the Marine Corps leadership, the CyberPatriots STEM program would not exist.”

This year’s CyberCats cadets were: Zachary Wirth, Deekan Wilson, Gavin Jones, Ethan Lenhart, Julian Taylor, Mason Lemay, Ethan Simmons, Anthony Velez, Timothy Braughton, Jadon Lee, Kaden Baker and Erica Anderson.