Thursday, May 5, 2011

Locke High Advances to Nation-Wide Cyber Defense Competition

By LEILONI DE GRUY, Staff Writer (Los Angeles Wave)

Being the only inner-city school to enter a top-notch competition is not a label six Locke High School students resent. Rather, they consider it an honor considering their rivals are praised for coming from some of the most technologically advanced high schools in the nation.
On Wednesday, the Locke seniors left for Washington, D.C. to engage in the final championship round of CyberPatriot, a nationwide cyber-defense competition aimed at introducing high school students to the growing career field.
Out of 180 schools internationally, the Locke students are one of 12 teams that will compete beginning Friday.
“If you look at the teams that did make it, they are high-notch technology schools throughout the nation. It’s like a Cinderella story for us here at Locke,” said teacher Morris Phillips, who helped organize the team and has lent his experience with technology. “Some of these kids didn’t even have laptops. Others have bad Internet service at home. And here they are beating out other teams that have quality equipment. Knowing that the chips are stacked against us and they are out there able to compete at a high level, makes us really excited to go to D.C.”
One traveler taking part in the all-expense paid trip is team leader Kevin Moran, 17, who was approached by co-captain and peer Richard Parker because of his familiarity with computers.
“I kind of didn’t want to at first because it’s my senior year and I didn’t want to be stressed out,” he said. “But eventually he convinced me to join.”
With only one week to prepare for the first leg of the competition, which began Nov. 13, Moran and his team — Parker, Alexander Avelar, Samantha Abzun, Priscilla Magdeleno and Jonathan Gonzalez — worked the midnight oil. Not knowing whether they could succeed, “I made a promise to them that if they would see this through to the end, I would also see this through,” Phillips said.
“This is my last year here with these kids and it’s their last year as high school students. I said ‘let’s do something amazing.’”
Going into the competition, Moran thought cyber-defense was more about attacking and fighting off attackers. But during the first three rounds  — eight hours each, beginning at 6 a.m. — he found himself securing his system and finding vulnerabilities and viruses. Though he worked alone, he depended on the high scores of his teammates to give them an overall score that would place them in the next step of the competition.
“It is not really what I expected,” he said. “I thought I was going to be doing more attacking than defending.”
Having no formal training — just that which was provided in their computer classes at Locke and at home — the students began purchasing textbooks with the help of sponsors, researching methods on the computer and attending a number of seminars.
Additionally, they took computer science classes every Saturday at Los Angeles Southwest College, where they spent eight hours. On Tuesdays, they practiced for four hours after school and throughout the week they took it upon themselves to do exercises at home.
“They have stayed up to the wee hours learning this stuff,” Phillips said, noting that the students have advanced his own skills and those of a number of their instructors. “I would pay [for seminars] and they would pay for their own lunch, but we didn’t care about that because it was something that they needed to see. And now it’s paying off.”
Preparation, Moran admits, has been mentally and physically taxing. “My grades have dropped,” he said, “but I know I’m going to pick them up after I’m done with this.”
This upcoming round, to be held at the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center, is expected to be even more grueling than those that came previously. For five hours, the team will have to protect multiple computers on seven separate operating systems from being hacked into by a group of experts.
“We are going to rely on each other, because if one computer goes down, it can take down another,” Moran said.
Despite the hardships, the experience has been eye-opening for Moran.
“It makes me feel accomplished, like I did something worthwhile for my senior year,” he said, adding that he hopes to use his recently offered scholarships and internships — from Aerospace and Northrop Grumman — to further his education in computer science or information technologies and double major in health.
“It makes me feel good because my brother and sister go to school in Brentwood and their teachers asked if they had a brother named Kevin Moran. When they said ‘yes,’ they told them about CyberPatriot and how we have brought up Locke and how they never thought they would see this coming from Locke.”
Locke’s CyberPatriot program is sponsored in partnership with the Watts-Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club and Los Angeles Unified School District’s Beyond the Bell Branch.

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