Science and Technology News

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cyber warriors invest time in IT futures

by Senior Master Sgt. Dorian Chapman
24th Air Force Public Affairs

3/17/2014 - JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- The steadily growing, nation-wide teen competition known as CyberPatriot piqued the interest of school-aged computer experts right here at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland's Stacey High School this school year, which created a great opportunity for some cyber-savvy Airmen assigned to 24th Air Force to step in to mentor these computer defense hopefuls in the ways of cybersecurity.

"It's been exceptionally rewarding to mentor the CyberPatriot team this year," said Senior Master Sgt. Brian Meeks, senior enlisted leader of Joint Force Headquarters - Cyber, the 24th Air Force organization responsible for command and control of cutting-edge Cyber Mission Force teams. "Last year was Stacey High School's first year competing in CyberPatriot," he recalled. "I helped get things started last year, but this was my first year mentoring, and it's been a whole lot of fun."

According to Master Sgt. Joseph Harkleroad, chief of training for the 624th Operations Center, the numbered air force's command and control hub for cyber operations across the Air Force, he jumped at the chance to mentor for the second year in a row.

"The opportunity to plant seeds in these kids' minds about things like security, learning open source operating systems, and just offering a different way of thinking about computing from the cookie cutter, off-the-shelf experience was just too good to pass up," Harkleroad said.

CyberPatriot applies established standards nationwide outlining qualifications for students, coaches and mentors within the competition, but Meeks was quick to explain that mentorship wasn't exclusively reserved for fully trained computer specialists.

"The [CyberPatriot] website provides all the training a volunteer would need to assist the kids," Meeks said. "For me, I've been out of the hands-on, technical part of my job for a while so it was good to have the refresher. Digging back into the technology was rewarding to me, personally, but anyone willing to do a little homework can get the basics down in order to teach in the classroom."

Meeks said teamwork is fundamental to all aspects of CyberPatriot, even among the mentors.

"Everyone brings assets and certain skills to the mentoring team and we try to use that to our advantage," Meeks explained. "Someone may have extensive [information technology] knowledge but be less experienced in a teaching role, whereas someone else may only have the fundamentals from the online training, but have a knack for communicating with the kids. It works out great."

"Everyone has something to bring and everyone is going to learn something along the way," said Harkleroad.

For potential CyberPatriot mentors who don't live on or near JBSA - Lackland, there were 85 teams competing across San Antonio this year, which created hundreds of opportunities to volunteer. In fact, San Antonio was second only to Los Angeles in the number of competing CyberPatriot teams among participating cities across the nation. Those looking for opportunities to mentor can either work with a school's designated CyberPatriot coach or, if no specific school affiliation is desired, the registration system will assign one. Specific requirements and prerequisites are explained on the CyberPatriot website.

Though often compared to other extracurricular activities such as band or football, the specifics of what the competitors actually learn and do are sometimes misunderstood.
"Some people think CyberPatriot is about teaching these kids to be hackers, and that just isn't the case," said Meeks. "Primarily, the focus is system hardening, which is making a system less vulnerable to a cyber attack or to malicious actors on the internet. The students learn about patching, antivirus, password policies and many other aspects of making a system secure. And they learn these capabilities across multiple operating systems, such as Windows, Windows Server, and Linux," he explained.

According to the mentors, many parents have expressed gratitude and support for what their children are learning and encourage the students to use their new skills to make their home computer systems more secure.

"CyberPatriot is still in its infancy," said Meeks. "But more and more the parents are understanding what it's all about and supporting the kids' participation because they can appreciate the skills these kids are gaining, skills they will take with them throughout high school and college and into their future careers."

"The students get so much out of this program," said Harkleroad. "I've heard it said that those kids who participate in band have a measurably increased likelihood of success in life, based largely on the soft skills they learn. I feel CyberPatriot offers something very similar, but with hard skills thrown in. It's a link to career paths these kids would likely not get any other way," he explained. "They learn about the importance of sharing resources, a very real challenge in almost any endeavor. I can't think of a way to make these students better global citizens."

"Literally, these kids make our nation's cyber infrastructure more secure by going home, using these skills on their home computers and teaching their friends and families how to do it," added Meeks.

"For our team, we spend one lunch period, once per week during the school day teaching," explained Harkleroad. "But we maximized participation by having weekend sessions and even a field trip to see the inner workings of one of the industry leaders in cloud computing here in San Antonio. Where else are they going to get that?"

"The mentoring experience is truly about the kids, and I can't think of a better program that pays more dividends to the participant than CyberPatriot, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it," said Meeks.

For more information about CyberPatriot or to register as a mentor, go to .

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