North Hollywood High ‘CyberPatriots’ Aim to Defend Cyber Security Title

"Not having good cyber security is like leaving your home every day not only with the doors not locked, but with them wide open."

In 2017, with a rambunctious band and a tunnel of cheerleaders in blue and white, North Hollywood High celebrated the joyous return of another national championship title team - in cyber security.

"It was a little bit weird. We're computer geeks so not all of us like to stand out in front of a crowd. It makes us a little uncomfortable. But I think it's fun," said high school senior Aled Cuda, captain of the reigning national cyber defense championship team.

This year, teams "Togo," "Balto" and "Truman" are preparing for the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition hosted by the Air Force Association's CyberPatriot Program.

Focused on their desktop screens and typing furiously away at their keyboards in the North Hollywood High computer lab, the students are preparing to secure another championship title this year and their futures in the cyber sector.

The students' participation in the CyberPatriot competition helps them build competitive college applications, secure internships at national defense contractors, and forge connections with cyber professionals to help them pursue a career in the cyber sector.

Sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation, the CyberPatriot program seeks to educate students about cyber security and foster interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.

"If you watch what's happening in the news in all the different foundations and companies being hacked by various different groups or countries, you can understand that it's really important that everybody understands how cyber security works," said North Hollywood High senior Sophia Hewitt, a first-time attendee of the Cyber Security National Championship.

From Panera Bread, to Equifax, to U.S. voter systems, nothing and no one is safe from the growing number of cyberattacks. At a time when jobs in cyber defense are in high demand, these students are ahead of the game, getting real experience and exposure to the work professionals are doing in the field.

"When we were at the state cyber championship they had these kids searching cars for evidence to make a prosecution because of a cyber crime -- that's just the law enforcement side of it. We need to ramp up the number of cyber professionals we have in America," said Jay Gerhinger, the adviser of North Hollywood High's CyberPatriot program.

On top of that, these high school students are getting widespread recognition in the cyber sphere as some of the best cyber security teams in the nation.

"We're fairly confident," said Cuda, the captain of team "Togo," the defending national champions of last year's National Youth Cyber Defense Competition. "We've done it before and we know how to play the game this year and can hopefully win."

But as one of the few girls in CyberPatriot, this competition is about more than winning for Hewitt-- it's about setting an example for young girls.

"It really has shown me and the friends of my younger siblings that the capabilities of women are the same as men," she said. "You can do whatever you want. You can do fields that are typically male-dominated."

After first qualifying against 5,583 teams from the U.S., Canada and beyond, the three teams from North Hollywood High will be competing against 25 other teams in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition in Baltimore from April 16 to 18. The competition is the fiercest it has ever been, with interest in cyber security growing exponentially.

"Our lives are on the internet these days and on the computer. Not having good cyber security is like leaving your home every day not only with the doors not locked, but with them wide open," Gehringer said. "There are just bad people in the world that are going to take advantage of you and we need to make sure that they don't."

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