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Keeping guard online
CyberPatriot games help students learn how to defeat hackers
cyber patriot 1
Left to right, ECHS CyberPatriot coach Gregg Miles, SEHS students Jordan Shikany and Adam Yonce, and school district information technology coordinator Jeff Larsicy put their heads together toward a cyber security solution. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

It seems nowadays that just about everyone is sitting with a personal computer or laptop, or is attached to a mobile wireless device of some kind — or both.

That prompts a simple question from Jeff Lariscy, the information technology coordinator for the Effingham County School System.

“Is that device secure? The person holding it probably doesn’t know,” he said.

Making daily life increasingly dependent on cyber space comes with a dark side: the risk of hackers infecting computer systems to commit crimes, disrupt banking and business, steal people’s identities or simply wreak havoc.

“Somebody has to know how to secure these systems,” Lariscy said, “and there’s money to be made if you know how.”

To help local students gain hands-on experience in the growing field of cyber security, Lariscy involved the school district this year in CyberPatriot, a national high school cyber defense competition established by the Air Force Association. Lariscy learned about the program through his involvement in the Air Force-sponsored Civil Air Patrol.

So far, a dozen students — eight from South Effingham High and four from Effingham County High — are participating.

“There will be opportunities, always,” Lariscy said. “Kids their same age are sitting somewhere else coding viruses and malware (malicious software) and hacking systems. You pick which side of the fence you sit on — I’m encouraging sitting on the good side.”

In CyberPatriot competitions, students receive a narrative with clues as to why and how a computer system has been compromised. The participants earn points for pinpointing and fixing the problems.

Effingham’s teams will compete online against others around the country Nov. 15-17 and again Dec. 6-8, with the top 36 teams from those two rounds advancing to the national semifinals in January. The best of the best will face off in the national finals in March in National Harbor, Md.

To prepare, Effingham students are going through training sessions and practice rounds. They are dedicated — a recent exhibition round lasted from 4-8:30 p.m. on a Friday, with a short break for pizza.

“This is fun, but it’s work,” ECHS junior Tyler Martins said to school district instructional technology specialist Gregg Miles about halfway through the exhibition round.

Miles is coaching the ECHS team and fellow instructional technology specialist Justin Keith is coaching the South Effingham students. Local mentors also are involved — including Martins’ father, Air Force Master Sgt. Judd Martins, an instructor with the 165th Airlift Wing’s Combat Readiness Training Center.

Tyler acknowledged that having a “computer guru” for a father naturally helped develop his interest in technology. He signed up for CyberPatriot through his high school’s Air Force Junior ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps), and said he was “instantly hooked on it.”

While Judd and Tyler Martins enjoy interacting during the practice rounds, mentors aren’t allowed to help during the actual competitions. Instead, the students work as a team on one computer.

“The mentors and everyone else cannot say anything to us,” Tyler said, “so what we learn here is what we have to work with together. I can tell it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Adam Yonce, an 11th-grader in South Effingham’s Navy Junior ROTC program, also looks forward to the competitions, expecting “it will be pretty fast-paced … adrenaline flowing.”

Beyond that, participating in the program could help local students land jobs. Dependence on computers has made cyber security essentially a recession-proof field.

Cyber analysts earn median pay of about $75,000 a year, and more than 65,000 new jobs will be created by 2020, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

“It is a guaranteed job, pretty much,” Yonce said. “And I want to go into the military, so (CyberPatriot) is a big thing that might help.”

South Effingham has enough participants to enter an ROTC team in the all-service division and a team of non-ROTC students in the open division. ECHS will complete in the open division this year, and Lariscy hopes the Rebels will add an all-service team next year.

The registration fee to compete in CyberPatriot is about $350 per team. Lariscy used school district funds to kick off Effingham’s involvement in CyberPatriot, but he is soliciting local sponsors to support the program.

Much of the school district’s cost will be reimbursed, though, because the Air Force and Navy cover registration fees for ROTC/all-service teams. As an added bonus, a school with an all-service team can have an open-division team at no cost.

“Then it won’t cost us anything,” Lariscy pointed out. “Except for pizza.”

Cyber Patriot competitors

SEHS – Josh Carroll, Joshua Holzman-O’Brien, Lukas Lariscy, Chris Moore, Chris Patterson, Xavier Sanchez, Jordan Shikany, Adam Yonce

ECHS – Shane Harmon, Tyler Martins, Kelsey Wilson, Josie Woodward