CyberPatriot: Teens Team Up to Compete in Cybersecurity Challenges

A few years ago, when I was a reviewer for the NCWIT AiC computer science award, I encountered a training program for teens called CyberPatriot. I was intrigued when I saw how many students were participating, how much they were learning, and the way it was sparking their interest in pursuing computer science and particularly cybersecurity. In this article, I’ll share what I’ve learned about CyberPatriot, and I hope it will spark your interest as well—especially because the deadline to register for this year’s program is October 5, 2022.

students participating in cyberpatriot competition

What’s Cybersecurity, and Why Would Teens Want to Do It?

The Department of Homeland Security describes cybersecurity as a two-part approach: the proactive protection of systems and data from hackers, and the ongoing practice of ensuring the security of information. With the growing incidence of cyber attacks, the need for cybersecurity professionals is becoming acute, and so it’s an excellent career choice for young people who are interested in computer science. There’s a wide variety of positions within cybersecurity, offering a fit for many different working styles, personality types, and interests.

Still, at first glance, most people probably think of cybersecurity as dauntingly complex, requiring advanced degrees in engineering specialties and only appealing to the most technical among us. But CyberPatriot, the nation’s largest youth cyber defense competition, makes cybersecurity fun and accessible to teens. The competition aspect and the opportunity to collaborate with friends or other students with similar interests make the learning process engaging and constructive. 

If your teen loves puzzles and logic problems, exploring cybersecurity through CyberPatriot could be a great introduction to computer science, potentially leading to an intellectually satisfying profession that will offer them the choice of many different work settings and career paths.

School-Year Cybersecurity Programs

CyberPatriot is one of several good programs that introduce teens to cybersecurity early enough for them to decide whether it’s a subject they want to study in college and a career they want to pursue. These programs run during the school year and allow students to explore this exciting and rapidly growing area of computer science before heading to college. They offer teens an engaging and intellectually challenging way to test their skills and compete against other students and teams. This article focuses on CyberPatriot in particular, but you can learn about other programs in this article: Learn Cybersecurity: Competitions, Classes & Workshops for Teens.

About CyberPatriot

CyberPatriot is the world’s largest cybersecurity competition! More formally known as the National Youth Cyber Education Program, CyberPatriot is a competition created by the Air & Space Forces Association to inspire students toward careers in cybersecurity or other STEM disciplines critical to our nation’s future. Because education and inspiration are its mission, CyberPatriot is designed for any student, regardless of whether they have prior cybersecurity knowledge.

CyberPatriot is a popular after-school activity for middle and high school students— with over 5,000 teams registering each year. Most students compete as part of a team at their school, where a coach (usually a teacher) registers the team and recruits students to participate. However, the competition is also open to groups outside of school (homeschool co-ops, scouting units, 4-H clubs, Boys and Girls Clubs, STEM programs, church groups, etc.). As long as the students on a given team are affiliated with a youth organization, and the team has an adult coach, they are eligible to compete. Teams comprise two to six student competitors and an adult coach, and optional technical mentor(s) and adult team assistant(s).

CyberPatriot provides training materials to the coaches who register teams for the competition. The AFA also offers virtual operating systems filled with cybersecurity vulnerabilities, which teams use for learning and practice in the weeks leading up to the competition.

Except for the finals, all rounds of the competition take place online. Teams may meet at and compete from any location—classroom, computer lab, public library, home, etc. In the competition, teams are challenged to find and fix cybersecurity vulnerabilities in virtual operating systems. Each team has multiple challenges during their six-hour competition period. Teams are scored on how secure they make the system. Teams advance through the online round of competition, and the best advance to the in-person National Finals Competition.

“CyberPatriot offers a fun and engaging environment for middle and high school students to learn about cybersecurity. For some students, CyberPatriot is a way to expand their knowledge on something they are already interested in, while for other students, CyberPatriot sparks their interest. The demand for cybersecurity jobs is growing rapidly, so not only are students having fun, they are also learning skills that will help them in the future if they chose to go into this in-demand career field.”

 -Rachel Zimmerman, CyberPatriot Senior Director of Business Operations and National Commissioner

Ready to Sign Up a Team? 

Don’t delay! Team registration for this year’s competition ends soon, on October 5, 2022. Practice and training rounds run from May through October. Official competitions take place on specified weekends throughout the school year from November to February and the National Finals Competition is held in the spring. Visit uscyberpatriot.org for the details.

How Can Parents Help Their Child Find a Team or Start a New One?

To find an existing team, look at a map and list of currently registered teams and see if there is a team at your school or near you. If the school your child attends (or other youth organization) doesn’t already have a CyberPatriot team, parents can help by reaching out to the school or other youth organization and letting them know about the program and encouraging them to start a team. AFA has created a helpful guide on how to do outreach for the competition. Parents can also act as coaches or assistants, though they would have to meet any restrictions or guidelines set up by the school or youth organization.

Image Credit: CyberPatriot XI National Finals Competition

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