While their JROTC peers march in unison outdoors, their rifles spinning as they run through their team drills, one team of Lanier High School students huddled near laptops.
A handful of Lanier’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets have joined the school’s Air Force Association CyberPatriot team this year – a national scholastic competition between campuses that helps train the nation’s future cyber defenders. The school made its entry into the competition last year.
“When I came on board one of the things I picked up on is we didn’t have a lot going on with IT and the health sciences,” said Johnny Vahalik, who directs the San Antonio Independent School District’s college, career, and military readiness programs. Vahalik joined the district 10 months ago.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez charged Vahalik with developing a plan, in part, to help improve its information technology offerings. Part of that strategy includes bolstering the district’s CyberPatriot program, Vahalik said.
SAISD’s JROTC programs received $40,000 in dedicated funding this year in part to launch CyberPatriot programs as well as to boost existing ones. Before this school year, the JROTC and the middle school-based Leadership Officer Training Corps received funding only from the military for these programs, Vahalik said. The money has been used to purchase laptops and other equipment needed to compete.
“That funding came in right on time,” said First Sgt. Robert Bruce, an Army JROTC instructor who coaches the Lanier CyberPatriot team. “We’ve got to get some more stuff, too. This is just the tip of the iceberg with CyberPatriot. … This year we’re running a little better than we were last year. Now we’re on the move.”
Lanier’s CyberPatriot teams constitute a couple of the 44 registered districtwide, Vahalik said. Each team must have between two and six competitors on its roster, and up to five teams can take part in a competition round. Schools typically have at least two teams in their programs.
In each round of the competition, teams search for cybersecurity vulnerabilities and improve the security in so-called virtual machines, or simulated computer networks. Teams are scored based on their performances.
Last year, Alamo Heights High School took home several awards after being named a national finalist in the 2017-18 competition. Apart from a U.S. Marines military academy in Harlingen, Alamo Heights was the only Texas school in the finals, which took place in Baltimore in April.
In 2013, when First Sgt. Jasper Miller arrived at Alamo Heights, the high school did not have a CyberPatriot team. Creating one from the ground up takes a lot of time and resources, he said. When he first took charge of a CyberPatriot program, he spent three hours every day after school going through the organization’s training materials online. He visited the commander at Lackland Air Force Base, who sent him a squadron of airmen to mentor his cadets.
April was the school’s first trip to nationals, and Miller aims to make that a perennial occurrence. Two of Alamo Heights’ teams scored in the Top 10 among Texas teams in Round One of this school year’s competition.
This is the first year the school has opened the program to non-JROTC students. CyberPatriots can compete in one of three divisions: middle school; open division, which includes any non-JROTC students; and an all-service division, combining Air Force, Army, Civil Air Patrol, Marine Corps, Navy Sea Cadets, and Navy JROTCs. The teams competing in the open division are often more competitive, Miller said.
“When you open up open division for your school, you are opening up to a very wide talent pool,” said Daniel Plaza, a San Antonio College student who is mentoring the Alamo Heights open-division team.
Army JROTCs, such as those installed at Lanier and Alamo Heights, have arrived on the CyberPatriot scene late, with the program having been founded in 2009 by the Air Force Association. Seven Air Force JROTC teams competed that year. Although extracurricular, the competition has increasingly become a launching pad for tech careers.
“All these Army ROTCs like Lanier, they’re now just catching up, they’re just now finding out about it,” Miller said. “They’re 10 years behind.”
Lanier students last year did not have adequate computing power to load the virtual machines onto their laptops. With a handful of new laptops, purchased with SAISD’s IT-dedicated funds, the Lanier JROTC cadets began to learn the foundational concepts of CyberPatriot in October.
Stacey Charles, a junior at Lanier, led her team through training and taught them how to install their practice computing environment, which she said is a process in itself. Although it’s the first year the school is making an earnest go of it in the competition, she believes they can go far.
“We want to do better so we can prove that we’re not as behind as people may think,” Charles said.