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,"
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
"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 www.uscyberpatriot.org .