Future of cybersecurity in the hands of today's youth

Hard work pays off for Father John V. Doyle team as they compete in semifinal round of CyberPatriot competition

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COVENTRY — The teams of middle schoolers at Father John V. Doyle School in Coventry might resemble IT professionals as they work together to find cybersecurity vulnerabilities of a small company — virtually. It sounds more complicated than the computer classes of yesterday, but these students are helping to take technology in education to the next level.

CyberPatriot is the Air Force Association’s National Youth Cyber Education Program, created to motivate students towards careers in cybersecurity and other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, explained Principal Jae Smith. Francine Adamo, director of technology and technology teacher, along with members of the Rhode Island Air National Guard 102nd Network Warfare Squadron, coach the school teams.

“Airforce CyberPatriot competition train students in area of cybersecurity,” said Adamo who meets with the students each week to practice. “They want to open their eyes to the possibility of different careers. The students love it and have really taken to it.”

Father Doyle School sent both of their CyberPatriot teams, comprised of 9 students on two teams, from sixth through eighth grade to the semifinal round of this year’s middle school CyberPatriot competition this past weekend. After the results of the semifinal round are in, the top 3 teams in the state will move on to the National Finals in Baltimore, Maryland, during the first week of April. As of press time the results had not been reported.

“The competition in the semifinal round was tough,” said Adamo. “They should be very proud of themselves for all of their hard work and the knowledge they have gained.”

The early rounds of the competition are completed onsite, at Father Doyle School. According to CyberPatriot, teams download virtual image representations of operating systems with known flaws, or cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Teams must find the flaws while keeping computer functions working. Team progress is recorded by a central CyberPatriot scoring system.

Principal Smith explained that the students are learning valuable organizational and teamwork skills through the program.

“CyberPatriot training is helping our students to understand the importance of cybersecurity in their everyday lives, to gain skills to better protect themselves online, and to behave ethically online,” she said. “We are confident that there will be many more opportunities available to our students thanks to their participation in the CyberPatriot program.”

Principal Smith added that the mentors from the Air Force continue to be wonderful role models and the school is so appreciative of their involvement with the teams.

Joshua Winchell of the Air National Guard said that it’s important to teach students the correct way to address problems in cyber security, making them stronger assets to companies in the future.

“Cybersecurity is in the news every day,” he said. “It’s important while they are young to teach them the right way to do it. If it’s not cybersecurity it’s STEM — it’s what we need for the country and we are passionate about it.”

Eighth-grader Isabella Pizzo said that she enjoys working as a team.

“I like working together to solve the problems,” she said.

James Laboissonniere, eighth- grader, said he could see himself working in this field in the future.

“It sounded interesting when they first announced it,” he explained. “Sometimes we are making educated guesses and some stuff we have learned. The program is a great resource for the information we need. Our knowledge [in this field] is expanding.”

Captain John Alfred of the Rhode Island State Police, Commander of the Cyber Crimes Unit and Fusion Center, is part of the cyber task force that originally reached out the Father John V. Doyle School about the program. He explained that 198 students in the state are involved in CyberPatriot, with 37 teams across the state. Captain Alfred shared that addressing issues in cybersecurity is not something the country can avoid.

“It’s in everything we do,” he said. “We need students coming up through school, through college interested in this field. There are plenty of jobs out there for cyber security professionals.”

It’s a program that continues to gain attention and grow each year, said Captain Alfred, who hopes that it will remain an option for students throughout Rhode Island and the country.

“You have kids that enjoy coding and it’s a good opportunity that maybe they wouldn’t have had years ago. It’s hands on,” he said. “We support any efforts to recognize the importance of cybersecurity and make them understand the ethics of it. We do push that as well because it’s an awesome task. We need people who can protect that in this country.”