Twice since the start of the 2017-18 school year, teams of tech students from Coast Union High School have gone up against — and competed well against — the best similar teams from much larger schools.
In one challenge, competitors came from all over California. In the other contest, competing students were from all around the country and the world.
Cyber Innovation Challenge
The Coast team’s most recent success was at the California Cyber Innovation Challenge, hosted June 23-25 at Cal Poly. According to the team’s instructor and leader, Ayen Johnson, Coast’s participants there were Trent Ferguson, Luis Plascencia, Jack Bruce and Jonathan and Darien Jewel.
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Coast’s team was the only one from San Luis Obispo County that qualified, according to Cal Poly.
In a media release, Cal Poly said the Challenge involved “more than 100 students from around the state” who “took part in the two-day competition, designed to replicate many different threats that cybersecurity professionals face.
“This year’s challenge transformed Cal Poly’s California Cybersecurity Institute into a military hospital so students could immerse themselves in a real-world scenario using state-of the art forensics tools.”
Johnson said the competition is “like a puzzle, a situation that could be real world.”
In the mock situation, “ransomware was set up on a hospital mainframe server. Nobody could access any information about employees or patients until the ransom was paid. Students had to crack six different questions using cyber forensic skills, and they had two hours to do it.”
In the competition’s second part, he said, “students had to run around three different rooms looking for clues. An orb gave out Morse code. They had to tweet to make it work. They had to analyze information in the background of pictures and analyze packets of information to find clues.”
Realtime scores were tracked online.
The Coast1 team placed 6th out of 20 teams in the second part, and 17th out of 20 in the first part, putting them in 14th place overall.
Their competitors were teams from North Hollywood High School, Jesuit High in the Sacramento area and Del Norte High School in San Diego, which placed first, second and third. Bakersfield’s Centennial High School, which placed fourth, was named best new team, an honor that the Coast High team brought home in 2017.
Those teams, and others from the Central Valley, East Bay, San Jose, Riverside, Los Angeles, Orange County, Sacramento and San Diego areas had qualified for the Cal Poly event in knock-out rounds in regional qualifying competitions.
In the year-long CyberPatriot challenge, the Coast teams “performed well against very tough competition,” Johnson said. “Coast was the only local team that qualified” and it was “competing against schools that have over 4,000 high school students and 100 members on their CyberPatriot teams … three of the teams were national CyberPatriot winners!”
Coast’s two CyberPatriot teams have 10 members between them — Plascencia, Ferguson, Jonathan Jewel, Axel Beccerril, Antonio and Crecencio Antunez, Zack Azevedo, Alam Romo and Daniel Dubnow.
Qualifying for CyberPatriot takes a lot of practice and training, Johnson said, plus 24 hours of online competition in October, December, January and February.
He said both Coast teams qualified and made it into the finals, and Coast1 placed second in the state in the gold tier (there are three tiers, ranked as platinum, gold and silver).
The instructor gave kudos and credit for the “help and guidance from our district technology leader Henry Danielson,” along with the funding and support from district superintendent Victoria Schumacher and the Board of Directors of the Coast Unified School District (CUSD).
Board President Samuel Shalhoub said, “The experience these students are gaining through this program is invaluable, and their skills and talents … have the possibility of launching these highly skilled students into well paid and stable careers directly out of high school. The CUSD is proud of what our cyber team has accomplished, and we are happy to support our students, teachers, and staff who make this program possible.”
Shalhoub said the board watched a video of the CyberPatriots team in action, and said the students “demonstrated excellence in their study and practice of physical and digital information security, software, and hardware … From understanding and defeating malware on a variety of platforms, to scouring physical documents for sensitive information, our students are gaining extensive knowledge and expertise in this growing field of information security.”
Johnson said Coast’s teams consist of “underserved students that do not have a lot of opportunities in a small town.” The students have “worked tirelessly” with groups such as the Lions Club and Rotary Club, whose members want to help the underrepresented students excel in these educational opportunities.
And it’s all paying off: “This summer,” Johnson said, "one of our students will be a paid teacher-assistant at Cuesta College CyberPatriot Camp for Kids. This is a partnership helping the student get valuable work experience and work/teach in the cybersecurity field.”