Stories‎ > ‎

CyberPatriot Champions STEM Education

posted Sep 13, 2016, 5:33 PM by Michael Lenart   [ updated Sep 14, 2016, 5:11 AM ]

By Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Bernie Skoch

Asked to identify which nation’s economy is largest as measured by gross domestic product, most adults could likely correctly name the United States. At $18.5 trillion, the U.S. produces more goods and services than any nation on Earth (and about as much as its next three rivals, China, Japan, and Germany, combined). But many people are unaware that U.S. workers have created not only the largest economy in the world, but also one of the most productive, yielding more output per hour than the vast majority of nations. 

According to the IMF and its application of the measure of “purchasing power parity,” American workers produce about $55,000 of purchasing power parity, placing it seventh in GDP per capita. China? It ranks about 80th, at about $15,000 PPP. Japan? About 25th at $38,000 PPP. And Germany lags the U.S. by about ten places at approximately $47,000 PPP.

This productivity translates into a standard of living few nations on Earth have ever provided their populations. Several factors create this wonderful context, including national economic policies, an abundance of natural resources, a generally motivated population, robust infrastructure, and—to the point here—a broad adoption of information technology.

In 2008, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report that rippled across educational and other concerned institutions in the United States. Among other interesting insights, CRS’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education: Background, Federal Policy, and Legislative Action study reported the performance of U.S. students in STEM fields relative to their international peers. It shockingly ranked U.S. 15 year-old students 28th internationally in mathematics proficiency and 24th in science. More, it placed the U.S. as 20th in the number of students graduating with degrees in natural science or engineering. In other words, it painted a grim outlook for the near- and mid-terms in the quality and quantity of U.S. students focused in areas critical to the U.S. economy. Without young people entering educational paths that lead them to advanced STEM education and careers, the prospect of a starved technical workforce in America loomed large. 

For the Air Force Association (AFA), a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization focused since 1946 on promoting strong national security, this set of facts created significant concern. AFA since its inception has encouraged national policies that promote strong national security. Its first act of advocacy was promoting the creation of a separate Air Force, seen then, as it is now, as an important element of national defense. Since, it has promoted a variety of initiatives that strengthen national security, including creating the Community College of the Air Force and establishing a mechanism for annually identifying and recognizing the Air Force’s Outstanding Airmen of the Year. It has promoted a strong technical workforce to feed American industry, commerce, public safety, and every sector that relies on skilled technical workers. The 2008 CRS STEM study pointed out that there was an urgent need to draw more young students into STEM fields, and AFA decided to use its membership, governance, and staff to do what it could to address that national security need.

AFA chose a cyber defense competition as its vehicle. In 2009, AFA reasoned that the emerging field of “cyber” might appeal to students as an interesting field. More, while attracting students to STEM at any number of grade levels may have proved useful, AFA chose to host a high school activity because the high school ages were seen as a “sweet spot” when students are choosing education and career paths. AFA named its new cyber initiative “CyberPatriot.”

A modest proof of concept initiative was fielded in 2009, when eight teams of high school students competed at an AFA event in Florida. Students were given basic instruction on hardening a computer network against attack, and then were scored as teams on their success at identifying and remediating cyber vulnerabilities on a simulated network. 

The concept of a cyber defense competition for high school students was undeniably “proven” during that first deployment. The eight teams of Florida students were visibly excited with the notion of learning cybersecurity principles, and more when actively competing to see which teams could best make their networks as unsusceptible to attack as possible.

Following the successful 2009 proof of concept, a pilot program was fielded later that year in which nearly 200 teams of students from several states competed. And in 2010, the first truly national season (referred to as CP-III, representing the third “season” of competition) was fielded. Since then, participation in the competition has exploded, with CP-VIII, the 2015-2016 season, attracting over 3,300 teams from all 50 U.S. states, numerous U.S. territories, DoD Dependent Schools in both Europe and the Pacific, as well as teams from Canada.

In the six years since the competition’s first national fielding, AFA’s CyberPatriot Program Office has implemented several changes to the program. Very early in the program it became clear attracting female students to the program needed to be a priority. Female participation in most STEM programs is about 12%. Interestingly, the Program Office came to see in 2014 that one of the limiting factors in female participation was that many female students, on reaching high school, had already decided STEM fields were not appealing because, in their view, STEM programs were “a guy thing.” CyberPatriot at that time decided to allow middle school teams to participate in the competition, and through that and a number of other specific efforts (including waiving participation fees for all-girl teams), CyberPatriot now boasts a female participation rate of 23%. The middle school expansion is also seen as a factor in driving up underrepresented minority students in the competition to over 40%.

One key to CyberPatriot’s growth is its unique format. An adult (typically a middle school or high school teacher) volunteers to act as a coach. Then as few as two students (and as many as six) form a team around that coach and complete online instruction modules developed in conjunction with AFA’s partner the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security. AFA’s Program Office then distributes simulated networks to all registered teams. Those virtual networks include vulnerabilities that weaken the network, including poor password practices, poor user account management, poor firewall practices, and others. A remote client monitors each team’s performance, dynamically reporting to a central scoring system at AFA Headquarters (the CyberPatriot Competition System) each time a team successfully remediates a vulnerability (or when a team takes a step backward).

Following a series of practice rounds beginning in early spring each year, competition begins in earnest in the fall and winter. Following four “live” rounds of online competition, AFA identifies the top 28 teams and, using its grant and sponsorship funding, flies those teams all expenses paid to the National Finals Competition, currently at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at the Baltimore Inner Harbor. There the teams compete for national honors in three divisions. The Open Division represents high school students in public schools, private schools, parochial schools, 4H clubs, scouting units, and even home schooling groups. The All Service Division is composed of teams from Junior ROTC units of all Services, Civil Air Patrol squadrons, and from units of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps. And the Middle School Division is made up of middle school student teams, irrespective of affiliation.

CyberPatriot’s growth has been nothing short of astounding, growing from a modest eight teams in 2009 to over 3,300 in 2015 - and 2016 is shaping up to be even bigger.  The competition’s growth is fueled in large measure by an active nationwide cadre of Air Force Association volunteers who promote the program in local communities.

The program has attracted a strong base of support from industry. Led by the Northrop Grumman Foundation, the program’s presenting sponsor, CyberPatriot now also draws support from industry leaders like AT&T, Cisco, Microsoft, Facebook, Symantec, Splunk Riverside Research, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Educational institutions like the University of Maryland University College, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and American Military University also support the growing program, as do government institutions like the Air Force Reserve and the Department of Homeland Security.

CyberPatriot has completed a number of alumni assessments, and they affirm in no small way that the program is drawing students to STEM education and careers. CyberPatriot alumni currently enrolled in higher education institutions are enrolled in STEM fields at a whopping 87.5% rate, against a national baseline of roughly 14%. And CyberPatriot alumni who have moved on to the workforce are working in STEM fields in 92% of cases!

Perhaps most remarkably, when asked if their CyberPatriot experience shaped their education and career choices, fully 92% of alumni acknowledge that it has.

The CyberPatriot program has broadened, too. Originally presented as the National High School Cyber Defense Competition, the competition element of the program was re-named the National YOUTH Cyber Defense Competition when middle school teams were accepted. More, an AFA CyberCamp program was created in 2014, providing a 20-hour week-long summer program. That program has swelled from three camps deployed in its first year to 83 in the summer of 2016.

Additionally, in 2015 the CyberPatriot Program Office released its Elementary School Cyber Education Initiative, or “ESCEI.” That program has reached over 3,000 locations in its first year and teaches children as young as 4 years old cyber basics and cyber safety.  Version 2.0 was released in the summer of 2016.

All told, CyberPatriot has reached an estimated 85,000 students nationwide. It is providing cyber awareness, leadership opportunities, and an unquestioned attractant that is demonstrably drawing students to education careers in STEM fields. Its reason for success? We can’t be absolutely sure. Maybe it’s the team format. Maybe it’s the relevance of the field of cybersecurity. Maybe it’s the enormous career opportunities that cybersecurity offers.

Whatever the reasons, it’s working. And the nation is stronger for the action AFA took in 2009.