By Sharon Broomall
When April Xie joined a CyberPatriot competition team as a San Diego high school sophomore in 2014, she probably didn’t know how far the experience would take her.
Team coach and Northrop Grumman Communications business unit (BU) Engineer Paul Johnson — as well as Northrop Grumman managers and recruiters — most likely did.
Xie, now an 18-year-old freshman at MIT planning to major in computer science and engineering, interned the last three summers with the Communications BU’s Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) cyber team, where she impressed her supervisor not only with her technical knowledge but with her ability to work seamlessly with BACN engineers.
The opportunity to gain real-world, hands-on experience while working side by side with Northrop Grumman cyber engineers helped shape Xie’s future. The MIT student embodies the many success stories that promise to unfold as CyberPatriot participants enter the workforce.
California Assemblyman Brian Maienschein (back row, center) recently recognized 14 cybersecurity competitors at the Rancho Bernardo campus, where the teams practice every Sunday with coach Paul Johnson, a cyber systems engineer in the Avionics and Tactical Networks operating unit at San Diego’s Rancho Carmel campus. Pictured are (front row, from left) Andrew Wang, Pranav Patil, and Daniel Chen; (back row, from left) Hannah Zheng, Shruti Verma, Emily Park, Akul Arora, Maienschein, Lily Hu, Alex Guo, Lucy Gao, and coach Johnson. (Not pictured: Kedwin Chen, Arushi Dogra, Anjali Patil, and Madeleine Tran.)
CyberPatriot is a national cyber education program run by the Air Force Association (AFA) and sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation. Created to motivate students to choose careers in cybersecurity and other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines, the program includes a national competition for middle and high schoolers, cyber camps, and even a cyber education initiative for students as young as kindergarteners. At CyberPatriot competitions, teams of students compete for points as they defend operating systems, networks, and servers against attack.
“Instead of keeping it academic, it’s important to show students the real-world implementation of software. CyberPatriot does that,” said Steven Richard, a Systems Engineering manager and Xie’s supervisor at San Diego’s Spectrum Center, in Northrop Grumman’s Mission Systems sector. All CyberPatriot alumni who’ve worked for Richard as interns have been “phenomenal,” he said.
That isn’t surprising, given Northrop Grumman’s investment in CyberPatriot. The Foundation has given more than $10 million to the program since establishing a partnership with the AFA. Hundreds of Northrop Grumman employees donate their time as CyberPatriot mentors, event volunteers, and coaches, and the corporation has provided more than $350,000 in scholarship funds to CyberPatriot students since 2010, a time period in which the number of participating teams grew by 745 percent to 5,584.
The CyberPatriot recruiting effort has been remarkably successful atbridging the STEM gender gap. While most STEM programs report a female participation rate of about 12 percent, CyberPatriot participants nationally are 23 percent female, and Paul Johnson’s CyberPatriot teams consist of nearly 40 percent young women. This is driven by CyberPatriot’s strong presence of female mentors, fee waivers for all-female teams, and emphasis in monthly publications and social media on female participation.
“The beauty of CyberPatriot is that most students have little prior knowledge of cybersecurity, so there’s a steep learning curve for everyone, regardless of gender,” said Xie, who achieved perfect scores in Linux system hardening in record time at the national CyberPatriot competition while in high school. “The initial hesitation or judgment that girls feel when participating in most STEM competitions doesn’t exist with CyberPatriot. This allows girls to rapidly develop skills in computer science and math without feeling they’re behind their male counterparts.”
Johnson’s cyber teams’ successes are many. Just last month, five of his teams took top-three placements in the Middle School and Open Divisions during the national-level CyberPatriot State Round. Other accomplishments include state and national championship titles, top-five national placements, a top-three placement by an all-female team at the national-level State Round — followed by features on local TV and radio stations — and recognition of a female team member and Johnson by the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
Last school year, the members of coach Paul Johnson’s all-female cybersecurity team took home numerous honors from competitions at regional, state, and national levels, including placing third overall at the California Cyber Innovation Challenge. Pictured (from left) are Hannah Zheng, Anjali Pati, Lily Hu, coach Johnson, Arushi Dogra, Lucy Gao, Shruti Verma, Madeleine Tran.
California Assemblyman Brian Maienschein added to the accolades recently, presenting 14 young women and young men on Johnson’s teams with certificates of recognition from the California Legislature for competing at the California Cyber Innovation Challenge. Maienschein emphasized the value of the CyberPatriot program, volunteers like Johnson, and driven students, especially young women, in building the cyber workforce.
“It’s important to have this level of community involvement in something that truly matters,” Maienschein said. “A lot of times our society focuses on sports, but what’s going to make more of a difference in all of our lives is the contributions that CyberPatriot competitors are going to make in much more important fields.”
(To read more about the CyberPatriot program and how you can contribute as a coach or mentor, click here.)