Cyber warriors train, compete to defend the world from future hackers

CyberPatriot Melayna Tingy focuses on finding vulnerabilities in a computer’s operating system at The Hub, Dec. 9.

Story and photos by John Reese
USAG Stuttgart Public Affairs

The CyberPatriots of Patch Middle School went into action at The Hub Youth Center, Patch Barracks, to protect vulnerable computers from simulated hacking attempts, Dec. 9.

The young ladies, all 12-13 years old and sporting their blue team shirts identifying them as cybercrime fighters, were completing second and more challenging round of securing computer operating systems.

“Basically, they’re reverse computer hacking,” explained Girl’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Club sponsor, faculty advisor for CyberPatriots and co-sponsor of the Patch Middle School robotics team,  7th grade science teacher Rachel Makle. “They find system vulnerabilities, viruses – anything that could present a problem for a cyber network.”

The students worked intently on timed problems, some in groups and some individually. A chorus of cheers echoed across The Hub whenever they successfully completed a task.

“In the first round, they scored in the top 50 percent of all teams worldwide, and they’d only had two practices at that point,” Makle said.

There are 1110 middle school teams registered, said signal officer Maj. Natasja K. Allen, U.S. European Command, who recently started the Patch CyberPatriots team. Allen’s mission is cybersecurity for EUCOM. Her goal in starting the club was to develop future cyber professionals by giving them an early start on the security aspect, so by the time they reach college, cybersecurity is already second nature to them.

“Patch Middle School is competing against other middle school teams in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Japan, Hungary and another middle school in Germany,” Allen said.

The ladies practice after school and on Saturdays to hone their skills, mentored by Allen.

Clockwise from front left, Kourtney Steagall, Anastasia Drivas, Kiersten Steagall and Alyssa Drivas find security flaws in Windows 7, Windows 10, and Ubuntu 14, while keeping computer functions such as email working. Team progress is recorded by a central CyberPatriot scoring system. Photo by John Reese, USAG Stuttgart Public Affairs

“I’ve always enjoyed science, and I think being curious is the key to getting better at it,” said Kiersten Steagall, who wants to be a therapist making prosthetics for injured animals. “And yeah, it’s pretty fun.”

Kiersten used the example of a duck to explain her thinking process for how a prosthetic would have to work when the duck was swimming, walking or flying.  “My mom says that it’s really good to have a gifted mind.”

The girls really took to (Allen’s) lessons and are enjoying this, Makle said. “They like the challenge of finding the viruses or vulnerabilities in whatever system they’re working in. It’s something that I’m glad Natasja was able to bring to them.”

A sound effect on the group computer brought another round of cheers, meaning the CyberPatriots had completed another task. The team was figuring out the different users in various groups to determine which users do or don’t belong.

“At first, I thought it was just fun, and I still do it because I actually love it,” said 7th grader Alyssa Drivas, who plans to be a scientist who studies animals. Her twin sister, Anastasia, is also on the team.

Megan Newkirk, 12, is mentored by Maj. Natasja Allen during round two of the STEM CyberPatriot competition. Allen initiated the Patch CyberPatriots and Makle began the Girls STEM Club. Photo by John Reese, USAG Stuttgart Public Affairs

Future actress, writer and scientist Megan Newkirk, who will be performing in the Patch Middle School Drama Club’s “A Fairytale Christmas Carol,” Dec. 13, joined the CyberPatriots because she likes the challenge.

“I like computers,” Megan said. About her future, she said, “I could be a lot of things.”

“These ladies surprise me, every day, on what they know already coming into this. Some of the things they’re being asked to do are very complex, very difficult,” Allen said. “It’s hard. It’s not simple things I would expect (12-13 year old students) to do. A lot of professionals wouldn’t know how to do the things they’re being asked to do and research.

“I’m blown away, every day,” she said.

The next round for the Patch CyberPatriots will be at the state level on Jan. 20 with the overseas students being counted like a state in the continental United States.

“Because we’re a middle school, we’re guaranteed the state round,” Makle said. “But they still have to continue to build on their score until they’re in the top 50 percent of all of the competing schools so they can go to the semi-final level, and then try to reach the national level in Washington D.C.

“They really are smart kids, and they continue to amaze us,” Makle said.