Career & tech students soar at Air Force CyberPatriot competition

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What does it take to place at the top of an Air Force Association’s cybersecurity competition?

Ask Warwick Area Career and Technical Center students who clinched “gold.”

Twelve center students clinched the top scores in the “Cisco Systems” category of a CyberPatriot competition in December, navigating through “mock” network hacks to find and solve security issues within computer systems - and time was of the essence.

The WACTC students, representing two teams out of 14 total who placed at the gold level of the competition, will move on the state rounds, on Jan. 19, a daylong competition the students say they’re anxious for, but feel prepared to tackle.

Through hands-on courses at WACTC, teamwork, and a mentor from the cybersecurity field, the students and their instructor, Elizabeth Charette, say they’re ready for what’s next and are learning skills that translate well outside the classroom.

“They’re learning that you have to be the Jack-of-all-trades,” Charette said, as the students troubleshoot through various network environments and the cybersecurity world together.

Attention to detail, problem solving, collaboration and patience, the students said, are the prerequisites for success at WACTC, CyberPatriot competitions, within the industry, and beyond.

A partnership between the school and SecureWorks, an information security services division of Dell, allows students to work directly with mentor Chris Collins, cybersecurity specialist for the company.

“It brings a whole different aspect to it,” Charette said, who has witnessed her students improve immensely as they’ve grown in the program.

“He gave us a glimpse into what the industry looks like…It almost felt like we were in a work environment,” senior Jacob Delisle said of working with Collins.

The students will continue learning from the mentor, who was impressed by their work ethic and teamwork throughout the last round of the CyberPatriot competition in December, a timed event where students score points based on their ability to find security flaws and efficiency issues, and correct them in a timely manner.

“It’s a fun competition that fosters a lot of skill,” Charette said, adding that WACTC students have been recognized by members of the U.S. Air National Guard, Gov. Gina Raimondo, and Congressman Jim Langevin in previous competitions.

Charette said of the CyberPatriot events, “We continue to learn and grow from it.”

The students said they could not have scored as high as they did without collaboration.

“Teamwork is definitely an important factor,” Delisle said.

“It’s such a massive thing, it’s definitely not something you can take on yourself …It furthers the camaraderie between classmates,” he said.

The skills needed to do well in CyberPatriot, Delisle said, are the same needed to succeed in life- the abilities to adapt to changes, analyze situations and react accordingly, and work through glitches.

“Once you find that dynamic, you’re unstoppable,” he said.

Having been a student at WACTC for three years, Delisle credited the “solid background” he’s learned at the school.

If he hadn’t been a student at the facility, he said, “I don’t feel as though I would have done anywhere near as well as I did” in the competition.

The students offered advice to others competing, encouraging them to stay calm under pressure, remain focused, and work together.

Senior Brian Bourgault was one of several WACTC students to say he expects to perform even better at the upcoming CyberPatriot event than last year, noting the knowledge and experience of the high school’s teams.

As a WACTC student, Bourgault said, “you get college credits, and it’s a great opportunity to meet people and to learn if this is a path you want to take - and if it is, to learn what it’s like to take this path, and what will help you take this path.” 

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