Five students captured a national championship last weekend for Chantilly, but not in athletics. They did it with computers to emerge victorious in the Air Force Association’s (AFA) CyberPatriot V National Finals.
Working together, Team VOID — seniors Weyland Chiang, Chris Kim and Bryan Nguyen and juniors Anirudh Bagde and Tim Rothschild — defended computer networks and systems from external threats.
For their efforts, each received a $2,000 scholarship from the Northrop Grumman Foundation, presenting sponsor for CyberPatriot V. They also brought home a trophy for the Chantilly Academy — a Governor’s STEM Academy.
“Right from the beginning, they were driven, focused and passionate about it,” said their academy coach, computer-systems technology teacher Davi Anson. “So it doesn’t surprise me, at all, that they won.”
“They’re an exceptional group of kids, and also very nice,” said Academy Administrator Doug Wright. “We’re fortunate to have them. This win was a huge accomplishment for our students and we’re all very proud of them.”
The competition was held Friday, March 15, in the Gaylord Hotel at Maryland’s National Harbor. Some 28 teams participated after battling through three rounds of virtual competition to reach the national finals.
“This year, the [initial] field of competitors was 1,225 teams, so making it to finals is a big deal,” said Marynoele Benson with Northrop Grumman Information Systems. “[The challenges] also get increasingly more difficult, so these kids are really impressive.”
At nationals, 80 percent of the team’s score came from the three-and-one-half-hour-long, networking-security competition. Each member used a laptop to access 10 other vulnerable computers.
“An unknown, third-party team not in the competition attacks us to try to exploit the systems we’re trying to protect,” said Kim. “It’s in real time and, at the last minute, they added users and got remote access to one of our machines. We weren’t allowed to attack back; we had to patch the vulnerabilities.”
The rest of the score came from forensics and network-hardware contests. “In forensics, we get encoded and encrypted messages and have to decode them,” said Chiang. “In network hardware, they give us a router and a switch to set up a local area network [LAN] with computers to access the Internet.”
Nguyen said time constraints made the competition difficult. “We knew, if we had more time, we’d be able to secure everything and solve all the problems,” he said. “But we all had an idea of what to do; if one person was stuck, another could help him. So it was coordination, planning and teamwork.”
Bagde worked mainly on Linux, an alternative to a Windows operating system, to secure it from attacks. He especially liked “the challenge of finding all the vulnerabilities and having the satisfaction of fixing them so the other team couldn’t attack us.”
Most exciting for the team as a whole, said Kim, was “being in an environment of energetic individuals who were all focused and enjoyed the concept of cybersecurity.”
Added Rothschild, who worked on the forensics challenge: “I’m interested in information technology and I saw this as an opportunity to more deeply explore more parts of this field.”
Joan Ozdogan, coordinator of the Chantilly Academy’s CyberPatriot program, solicited mentors and corporate sponsors and advanced a strong working relationship with the AFA’s local Gabriel Chapter. She also helped recruit enough students for 10 teams, so she was thrilled with the victory.
“I am immensely proud of the more than 105 students who began the competition last fall at our academy,” said Ozdogan. “Six student teams made it to national semifinals and Team VOID went all the way to earn its title as National Champion.”
“The team’s success must be attributed to individual technical knowledge and skills — and the amazing power they harnessed by working together,” she continued. “As cybersecurity looms large as a threat to our society, I’m comforted knowing these five, future cyber defenders will help us meet the challenge.”
Anson said the team prepared by working every other Saturday since October, plus some evenings. “We did practice images to simulate vulnerabilities we might see during the competition,” said Rothschild. “Later, we decided who on the team would do what.” And in the final competition at nationals, they paired up to work on different operating systems.
Going in, said Chiang, they felt strong; but toward the end, the enemy started attacking all their computers. They also didn’t finish the whole networking portion. “So we went into the awards banquet not knowing how we did,” he said. “The Marshall Academy came in second and third, and we wondered who beat them. Then they said, ‘Chantilly Academy.’”
Ultimately, said Rothschild, “It wasn’t a competition of who could finish. It was about who could do the best with what we were given.”
“It was amazing how much energy we felt, walking up to the stage, with big smiles across our faces,” added Kim. “We did it.”
“In my 24 years as an educator, seeing kids perform in competitions, this was the most professional, well-thought-out and executed one,” said Wright. “It was cool watching the students work in unison and help each other. It was really incredible and truly a proud moment for the Chantilly Academy.”
Anson said students learn networking cybersecurity and how to defend against hackers in all their Academy computer classes. And, said Rothschild, “The goal of the CyberPatriot competition is to raise awareness and get more people interested in cybersecurity.”
Kim said cybersecurity will be one of the biggest concerns of the general population. “Our lives are so connected to technology today that, once people realize it, they understand what a big threat the world is facing,” he said. “We put data onto the cloud, but it needs to be secure.” Not to mention, added Anson, the U.S. power grid and financial system.
“The U.S. is experiencing a growing shortage of professionals interested in science, technology, engineering and math, threatening our economic future and national security,” said Sandra Evers-Manly, president of the Northrop Grumman Foundation. “Programs like CyberPatriot, which are increasing the pool of young people interested in STEM, are critical to our international competitiveness and our ability to defend ourselves from cyber threats.”