With Career & Tech mentors, Winman team makes semi-finals in cyber security event

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Forgot password?

How many times has that popped up on the screen?

Brandon Fontaine, a senior at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, defines that impasse as a “forensic question” in illustrating what sort of issues competitors might encounter in the CyberPatriot semi-finals held over the weekend at New England Institute of Technology. There’s much more than passwords to the six-hour event, where teams of up to six students troubleshoot systems that are infected with unsanctioned users and hackers looking to get in and make off with passwords and much more.

But on Saturday, Brandon wasn’t competing. Rather, he was one of several students in the Cisco Networking Center who have served as mentors to a newly created CyberPatriot team at Winman Middle School. As a coach, Brandon showed up at the semi-finals, helping the Winman team log in for the event and overcoming startup glitches.

Winman teacher Jen Robinson said she was intrigued when Cisco Networking instructor Liz Charette suggested creating a team and that she and her students would be there to walk them through the process. Robinson put out the word and soon had six students – Nicholas Prescott, David DeJesus, Alexander Bottella, Jamie Luna, Connor McKee Messer and Landon Smith – signed up.

“If the kids are interested then I’m always interested,” said Robinson. Charette was looking to sow the seeds for potential Cisco center students.

The Winman students and their student mentors started meeting once a week for 90 minutes after school to learn the ropes at either the middle school or the nearby career center in the shadow of Toll Gate high. And learn they did.

Charette estimates there are 20 to 30 teams in the middle school division from across the state. For the Winman team to be one of eight teams to reach the semi-finals has Charette grinning with pride. Robinson is right there with her.

The competitors worked with one of three programs: Windows 10, Server 2016 and Ubunta 2016. They created their own network of 20 to 30 users and then got into problem-solving as issues like faulty passwords and intruders looking to hack into the system popped up. Depending on the complexity of the problem, they were awarded points and rewarded with a chime, just as if they were playing the game Super Mario Bros.

Charette applauds Congressman Jim Langevin and the Rhode Island State Police that promoted the CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Education Program created by the Air Force Association.

The program aims to inspire K-12 students toward careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. At the core of the program is the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, the nation's largest cyber defense competition that puts high school and middle school students in charge of securing virtual networks, according to the CyberPatriot website.

The competition has three levels starting off with silver for those students who have the basics down, to gold and then platinum for advanced students. Last year, the Cisco Network Center team was in the gold division. This year they were elevated to platinum but didn’t make it to the playoffs. But just that they are in the platinum is an achievement Charette and Brandon celebrate.

Christopher Collins, who works as a cyber security engineer at Trans America and serves as a mentor for Cisco Network Center and Winman teams, checked up on the kids Saturday morning. He calls his mentorship “a learning experience for everybody.”

Does that include him?

He said students have shown him, “They’re multiple ways to get to solving something…something you haven’t thought of.”

Brandon is hopeful of going on to study cyber threat, intelligence and defense at Johnson & Wales.

Pondering his career options, Brandon said, “The possibilities are endless, it’s kind of scary.”

Warwick Area Career and Technical Center director William McCaffrey said Monday competition results were still being tallied.

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