Aries Security and CyberPatriot: Supporting Students
CyberPatriot is the National Youth Cyber Education Program created by the Air Force Association to inspire K-12 students toward careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines critical to our nation’s future. Every year, thousands of students across the country and internationally compete in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, which puts teams in charge of securing virtual networks.
In 2020, everything changed. The coronavirus swept through our nation, and the social distancing requirements that followed impacted every sector. For CyberPatriot teams, this meant that they could no longer gather in person to practice their skills. The students were devastated, and some teams worried that they might not be able to compete at all.
At Aries Security, we believe in giving back to the greater cybersecurity community and supporting educational initiatives in that arena. That’s why we provide free training, presentations, and workshops every year in the Packet Hacking Village at DEF CON.
When we became aware that CyberPatriot teams were having trouble training, Aries stepped up to bridge the gap. In professional use, the Aries Online Cyber Range provides users access to virtual desktops to complete training exercises. We adapted this technology to allow students to access the CyberPatriot systems from anywhere, using only a web browser on any internet-connected device (phone, tablet, or computer). In addition, instructors were given the ability to remotely monitor students’ workstations in order to provide help and support as needed.
Afterwards, we reached out to two team mentors, Hazel Cerra and Timothy Amerson, for their feedback on Aries’ support structure and the CyberPatriot experience in 2020. Here are their stories.
What was the biggest obstacle your team faced in 2020?
Hazel: 2020 was very different due to COVID. We had a limited team of 3 cadets. It was a very small team, and very challenging.
Timothy: This was the first time that CyberPatriot was not able to meet in person. The kids couldn’t go to school because of lockdowns and couldn’t come together. So, the question became, how do we still do this?
What was it like working with Aries Security?
Hazel: This was a really smooth process for us. We weren’t willing to risk getting together, and the fact that the cadets were able to go right online, get into the image, and then use a Zoom call to go over the processes they were learning was really effective.
I was very grateful for Aries’ product, because it changed our outlook. What started out as a dreary start to the CyberPatriot season, because we couldn’t get together, it turned that around. I’m very thankful for Aries’ support throughout this entire process.
Timothy: The biggest concern we have with CyberPatriot or even within the cybersecurity community is IT resources. For a kid to have a computer that’s strong enough to run the tools that we need to run and do the things that we need to do, it’s pretty slim. The chances are that they don’t have a system like that. With the platform Aries Security provided, it didn’t matter what they had. That, to me, was another huge advantage of the architecture, where we literally had no limitations.
Naturally, with any technology you’ll run into difficulties. There were little to no difficulties, and we had the support to make sure everything was up and running and ready for the kids. I’ve been doing this for five years, and I would do every year like this if I could. That’s how much I like the lack of limitations.
Why is CyberPatriot important?
Hazel: It’s a great way for the youth to have that first-hand experience on how to be a cybersecurity professional and have that security mindset. The majority of the cadets on our teams end up choosing careers in computers, because of the exposure they get from competing. I can’t say enough great things about it.
Timothy: There aren’t enough trained cyber operators in the workforce to fill the available jobs. There’s no technical training available, and CyberPatriot is that bridge, that opportunity to get experience and exposure to this career field, and get some experience working on a team.
When you say cybersecurity in a school district, their first thing is “Oh, you’re teaching hackers.” We’re actually teaching certified ethical hackers. They’re counter-hackers. That’s what you’re building here, is someone who can actually do this profession walking out of high school. You don’t have to go to college to walk into this industry.
What would you tell someone who wants to start a CyberPatriot team?
Hazel: It’s very possible, and you can do it. All you need is some determination and to bring this to the attention of someone who can encourage them. They’re going to get a lot out of it. It can be a complete game changer when it comes to what they want to do and their profession.
I had a young girl; it was her first time competing in CyberPatriot. She wanted to do it, but she was afraid because she didn’t have any computer skills. I told her don’t worry, this is for learning, and you will be fine. When she showed up, her confidence soared, and she crushed it. She was our best cadet doing server. Now she’s in high school and plans to major in cybersecurity.
Timothy: They don’t have to know cybersecurity to do this. They have to have the desire to provide an opportunity for kids, period. Be the one who’s going to make sure that the opportunity is available. If you do that, the end result will always be success. These kids don’t need you to spoon-feed them – they’ll figure it out.
We should be developing our kids to work in career fields of interest. And if you don’t give kids the opportunity to experience it, they won’t ever know that they have an interest. I don’t just use CyberPatriot. I use the national cyber league also – we were one of the very first high school kids to ever use it – previously they only offered accounts to college-age kids. Now it’s open to all high schools as well. It’s another opportunity for experience and exposure.
Adapting the Aries framework to the CyberPatriot challenge was a way to give back to the community through educational outreach. We saw an opportunity to support students in cybersecurity, as well as providing new options for educators involved with the program. And for the first time, CyberPatriot students were no longer limited by their own personal technology. They could train from anywhere, using any internet-connected device.
This was a rewarding experience for students and mentors, but also for our organization. We know the importance of teaching a security mindset, and of introducing young people to cybersecurity and cyberdefense early on. High schools and middle schools across the nation have incorporated robotics programs, maker labs, and coding workshops into their classroom offerings. CyberPatriot is a wonderful addition to this list.
Since supporting CyberPatriot was such a success, we are working to make this a formal offering by Aries Security. If you are interested in engaging with us to bring the Aries cloud experience to a wider range of CyberPatriot teams, please contact us at [email protected].
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