09/18/2014 12:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Student Competitors Learn To Foil Cyber Attacks


Like every respectable geek, I remember my first personal computer. Its Z-80 microprocessor operated at a screaming 1.77 MHz (less than one one-thousandth of the clock speed of today's systems) and it had 16KB of RAM (for the younger set, that's 16 KILObytes). When I later outgrew its floppy disk system (and its 177KB capacity), I bought my first hard drive, a five MB beast. I got it on sale for a steal: Two thousand dollars. (That was in 1987, and by my math, that's about $4,000 in today's dollars.) For five megabytes. Today? An 8GB flash drive will run you $6. Random access memory has dropped from $800 per megabyte to about seven hundredths of a penny per megabyte. (Yes, I checked my math.)

Technology is no longer just advancing. It's in a serious sprint. But this is about more than just how cheap technology has become. This is about the revolutionary capabilities we now slip into our pockets (or wear on our wrists) and it's about what is driving our economy. In a few words, it's IT, it's cyber systems and it's amazing.

Considering the total goods and services made in the United States and the number of hours of labor it takes to make and provide all those things, the average U.S. worker is among the top five most productive on our planet. Not only is our economy the world's largest, our workers are among its most productive. That distinction is inarguably due in large part to "cyberization" of American industry, commerce, and society. We are effective and efficient because we have leveraged the wonderful things cyber systems do so well. And we aren't alone. Information technology -- cyber -- is the engine behind every developed nation's success.

But there is an enormous issue emerging, and it puts at serious risk every advantage cyber systems are giving us. This issue cuts across every functional area of cyber systems, including software architecture, code writing, cyber security, hardware design, and system manufacturing, operations and sustainment. And it shows no sign of going away anytime soon. The issue is, of course, talent. Or lack of it. We aren't growing talent fast enough to meet the demand for the very special skills we need to feed this cyber-focused workforce our economy demands.

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The CyberPatriot competition is inspiring students to learn more about STEM and pursue careers in cybersecurity and IT

And if that isn't bad enough, here's the really tricky part. Let's suppose every company in America woke up tomorrow and decided right then and there to raise the pay to whatever it takes to draw the talent we need. $100,000 salaries? No problem. $125,000? We could do that too. But here's a cold reality: That wouldn't fix the problem. Why? Because we need a pipeline, and we don't have one. You can't look to universities to pop out a cybersecurity professional on Friday if one wasn't ready to graduate on Thursday. And you can't get one ready to graduate in the next couple of years if he or she isn't already enrolled and making progress toward the degree you need. And we can't expect a student, five years from now, to progress toward a technical degree (think physics and calculus) unless he or she is taking preparatory courses in middle school and in high school (think algebra and chemistry).

Sadly, far too few high school students are opting to follow technical education paths. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and are interested in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) career. Certainly opportunities are there for them to pursue STEM education and careers, but not enough of them want to pursue that path.

And females are particularly disinclined to pursue STEM. A 2012 study by the Girl Scout Research Institute revealed that only 13 percent of girls identified a STEM field as their first career choice.

So what to do? How can we address a dire workforce need if students aren't inclined to prepare themselves for careers that are promising, rewarding and lucrative? How can we innovate? How can we draw them to those fields?

A program created by my parent organization, the non-profit Air Force Association, has proven in its brief four-year life to be doing exactly what is needed to draw students to STEM. The National Youth Cyber Education Program -- CyberPatriot -- is drawing students to the STEM education paths and the STEM careers we need them in.

CyberPatriot uses an online cyber defense competition to draw students to STEM. They learn what a network is, what an operating system is, and how to harden systems against cyber attack. After four online rounds of competition, the top 28 teams of students travel to Washington, DC for a national finals competition at which they compete for recognition, medals, trophies, and scholarships.

Richard Parker of Los Angeles was one of the students who competed at the national finals in 2011. Richard grew up in Watts, a neighborhood where only 2.9 percent of adults 25 and over have four-year college degrees. He was always intrigued by computers, taking them apart and rebuilding them at a young age. But Richard's high school didn't have any special classes in computer science or programming, so his options for exploring his passion were limited.

But when he was a senior, the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) began participating in CyberPatriot. Richard's statistics classmates convinced him to take part. Richard agreed because he liked the competitive nature of the event, which he likened to baseball, "where you go in, compete, and try to win together."

Richard's team members had no prior experience with computers, so they all spent eight hours every Saturday taking computer science classes at Los Angeles Southwest College prior to the competition. In 2011, Richard's team qualified for the national finals, earning an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. They didn't win, but it launched Richard's career trajectory. He enrolled in college to pursue a bachelor's degree in computer engineering. While it college, he rode the bus three hours each way to mentor another CyberPatriot team at his former high school.

Richard is just one example of the many students whose lives are enriched by CyberPatriot. A whopping 94 percent of alumni have entered 4-year institutions after high school graduation. And 90 percent of alumni, like Richard, are studying STEM fields.

Carey Peck, who brought the program to LAUSD, says the program not only prepared Richard for a career in STEM, but helped him grow as an individual. "Richard learned how to interview, direct his team, and respond to questions," Peck said. "CyberPatriot gave him the boost he needed and the tools to succeed."

And, after even just one season of CyberPatriot, participants increased their perception of whether cybersecurity is welcoming to women from 38 percent to 56 percent.

We need more ways to draw youth to the careers we need them in, the very careers that will reward them well. Bring them on! For now, I invite you to join us in AFA's CyberPatriot, a great program that is already making a great difference in feeding the STEM pipeline.

CyberPatriot is a partner of Cisco CSR. Cisco sponsors The Huffington Post's ImpactX section.