LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. -- Seems like hardly a day goes by anymore that we don't report some big news to you about major computer crime and security breaches. Computer systems and servers and network devices of all kinds all over the world are vulnerable -- in government and private industry. Who is going to defend us against that? Could be this week's Fox 4 Young Achievers.
Think of them as cyber detectives -- bright, resourceful and driven. These students from high schools in the Lee's Summit School District have taken advanced classes in computer science and networking at Summit Technology Academy. And they like nothing better than being confronted with a very difficult, deeply hidden computer puzzle to solve.
"So anything we could do to kind of further our knowledge and make us more well-rounded IT (Information Technology) professionals, we're going to do it," says student Saige Mehl, "because it's fun. We enjoy doing it."
Instructor Lisa Oyler tapped into that enthusiasm and got these six young cyber sleuths into a relatively new, but rapidly growing annual competition for very smart, technically-minded high school students called CyberPatriot -- a fun event with very serious real world importance: cyber defense.
"Online banking, social media sites, remote access workers, intellectual property, all of that is on the network," says student Brian Green. "It's accessible and sometimes it's accessible by the wrong people."
"So you need people like us who know how to secure computers and make it safe for people to use them in the future," says Saige.
In CyberPatriot, challenges get tougher and tougher each round as contestants root out computer system bugs and weaknesses even as unseen adversaries work against them to block their progress.
"Each encryption does have a pattern," says student Kevin Schulmeister. "So we had to identify the pattern that was used and use one of our tools online to to decrypt it."
The team comprised of Kevin, Saige and Brian along with Keaton Thomas, Ben Wolff and Elias Duckworth soared in the preliminary rounds that were done online and qualified for the national finals in Washington, D.C. this spring where they finished in the top twelve out of more than 400 teams. And they snagged one of the major industry trophies, the Open Division Cisco Networking Award.
They say their teamwork and communication made the difference.
"We weren't just alone at the computer," says Brian. " We talked and collaborated on what to do. How to fix this. How to fix that. How to secure it."
The main purpose of CyberPatriot is to get many, many more young Americans interested in and prepared for careers in cyber security and other areas of STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- to meet the growing need for protecting our national infrastructure.
Four members of the team just graduated from high school and two will return to Summit Technology Academy next year as seniors. All of them are getting into industry internships and guiding their lives with an eye to top jobs in the computer industry. And all say cyber security just may be their focus now that they have tasted success in CyberPatriot.
"I'm pretty sure they'll all end up in computer-related fields of some kind," says instructor Lisa Oyler. "I think they've taken an interest in network security and they'll get into that as a career profession. They'll probably come back to show me their much-nicer cars than I have because they'll be making more money than I am. I don't have any doubt there are jobs out there for these students."
According to the Air Force Association, which sponsors CyberPatriot, over the next year there will be a need for 330,000 additional IT security professionals worldwide. And average salary last year for a cyber security job was nearly $101,000.
Fox 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Monday on Fox 4 News at 8 a.m., every Wednesday on Fox 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on Fox 4 News at 5 p.m.