Five Southern California high school teams are among the finalists in a national competition to defeat cyber hacking that will take place in Baltimore starting Monday.
The five teams — which hail from North Hollywood High in Los Angeles, Del Norte High in San Diego and Troy High School in Fullerton — make up nearly half the finalists in the Open Division at CyberPatriot, a competition created by the Air Force Association to bolster student interest in cybersecurity and other STEM careers.
The competition, which is sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation, puts students in the role of IT professionals, analyzing mock computer systems for security vulnerabilities. The teams are scored on their ability to identify those flaws while maintaining normal computer operations, such as email, according to the competition's website.
The open division includes high schools, scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs and some home school programs. North Hollywood High stands out because it qualified three separate teams for the finals. Students there have been training after school for much of the year.
A division for junior ROTC teams also had five finalists from Southern California, including a team from Reseda High School.
Lynuh Kim will be participating in the national competition for the first time. The 10th grader has long been interested in computers but only recently discovered the field of cybersecurity.
"Computers are such a ubiquitous part of our lives. They touch almost every aspect of our lives, but a lot of people don’t understand the basic process of how they work or how to make them safe and how to make their information private," Kim told KPCC. "So that aspect of cybersecurity, wanting to shore up some of the empty spots that other people might not notice, really draws me in."
Now that she's got a taste of the cybersecurity world, she says it's something she's considering as a possible career.
Jay Gehringer plays a key role in cultivating talent and preparing the teams for the intense contest. He coaches two of the three North Hollywood teams and thinks it's important to learn this material, not only for the nation's security but also for the career opportunities it presents.
Students learn things like how to best secure login process on Windows computers and defend other simulated computer networks.
The teams are part of L.A. Unified School District's Beyond the Bell after-school program, and Gehringer said student interest in the field varies from extreme passion to leisurely enthusiasm. He said he lets the students select their own teams — North Hollywood High started out with 13.
The competition's preliminary rounds focused on individual ability, but the end game will test their work as a team, Kim said.
"To get this far, they have to have a great deal of knowledge. But also, as we went on in the competition, teamwork became more and more important," Gehringer said.
Though pressure is high ahead of the competition in Baltimore next week, North Hollywood High School is no stranger to it. The school brought home a national title in 2014 and placed second in 2015.