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Members of the Peninsula High School Cyber Coding team include Nicholas Wang (from left), Seth Karner, Saahil Parikh, RJ Wakefield-Carl, Robert Peltekov and Ryan Chau. The local team competes in the national CyberPatriot event sponsored by Northrop Grumman in Baltimore on April 9, 2019. (Submitted photo)

Imagine you've just been hired as an IT manager for a small company. You're responsible for keeping the company's network safe from viruses, ransomware and myriad cyber threats.

Now, imagine you're a team of six high schoolers.

A team of Palos Verdes Peninsula High students has worked through dozens of these cyber scenarios. And, out of nearly 6,4000 teams, on April 8 they travel to Baltimore as one of 12 who qualified in the Open Division for the National Finals of CyberPatriot, a national youth cyber education program.

Peninsula High has made it to the CyberPatriot nationals six times since 2011. They've been competing since 2009, a year after the competition was created by the Air Force Association.

CyberPatriot is the nation’s largest middle school and high school cyberdefense competition. By simulating cybersecurity situations faced by computer administrators, the program trains future generations for cyber careers. Northrop Grumman Foundation, a presenting sponsor for the program, predicts a 1.8 million shortfall in cyber security professionals in the next five years.

Peninsula's coach, computer science and engineering teacher Hassan Twiets, is hoping his students become part of the solution to that shortfall. But, he emphasized the students are not learning hacking.

"They call it ethical hacking," said Twiets, who added students learn how to secure network systems, create strong passwords, limit fire sharing and ensure "the operating system doesn’t have a back door."

"Everything gets secured and locked, so no intruders can come in,” said Twiets, about the work the students do on the network.

The CyberPatriot competition lasts six hours. The extra-curricular Peninsula team has been meeting during lunch once a week and every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to prepare for the contest.

Peninsula team members are Ryan Chau, Seth Karner, Saahil Parikh, Robert Peltekov, R.J. Wakefield-Carl and Nicholas Wang.

Part of that preparation is to bring in mentors from the refineries, airforce bases, military and Boeing, in addition to Northrop Grumman engineers, said Twiets.

“So, we get guest speakers and we have students who come back and teach other students as well.”

Twiets doesn’t have any direct experience with cyber security, he has plenty of S.T.E.M. experience with a masters in software engineering and credentials in engineering in computer technology. He also taught math before he earned his computer science degree.

But, you don't need to be a brainiac to succeed in cybersecurity, according to Twiets. You just need an analytical and organized mind and know how to multitask.

But, most of all, you have to be a team player, said Twiets.

“Yes, you need to be consistent," he said. "You need to have the math because the math and the physics and the computer science teaches you the discipline to be patient, to investigate, to dig deep, (and to) find alternative solutions because you sometimes get a lot of dead ends, what would you do and how (would you fix it)?”

Peninsula senior R.J. Wakefield-Carl, 18, is the team’s captain. He's been part of the CyberPatriot program since freshman year. His tactic has been to learn a lot of different computer operating systems as a way to compete nationally.

“I just decided to take my team to another level, so I wanted to get (team captain) position so I could kind of move my team toward competing at that higher level,” said Wakefield-Carl.

One member cannot carry the entire group, said Twiets, so the team’s dynamic is crucial.

“So, it’s not just one piece and one person—everybody has to work to a common goal and everybody has to have a leader in one area because the competition is multidimensional," Twiets said.

“It’s a puzzle," he said. "You have to put together to solve it." 

During the competition in Baltimore April 8-10, the teams will be allowed to use open source materials. But, they’re not allowed to talk with other teams.

And, the competition is timed. If multiple teams reach 100 percent completion, the team who did it the fastest is the winner. It’s a big reason Twiets said it’s important that his team goes into the competition with a plan.

“They have to prioritize what they need to do,” Twiets said. “At some point it becomes an addiction for them because it’s something you can conquer in your mind.

"It becomes likes a sport, you just want to win,” said the cyber coach.

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