WEST HAVEN — Were you to hand over your computer’s operating system to the junior high cybersecurity team at Quest Academy, it would be in very good hands.
Quest’s team of 12 junior high students, representing grades seven through nine, recently scored the highest of the four Utah junior high teams competing in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, run by CyberPatriot, the National Youth Cyber Education Program created by the Air Force Association.
The team heads to the national semifinals Saturday, along with two other Utah junior high teams who’ll be competing sometime this weekend — though the team won’t be physically heading anywhere.
They compete at their school building, said the team’s coach, Jennifer Jones, who teaches computer science and coding classes at Quest Academy, a public charter school with 350 students enrolled at the junior high level.
The school is focused on science, technology, engineering and math, with a particular emphasis on technology.
In the competition, teams are presented with an operating system — like Windows 10 — that has 10-15 hidden vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a hacker.
“The students have to dig into that operating system, find that vulnerability and patch it, so that a hacker can’t get in,” Jones said.
The Quest team placed 55th nationally out of 861 teams in the junior high division — “which is pretty good for a little middle school,” Jones said.
The closest Utah school behind them in the most recent round of the competition placed 181st, Jones said, but three of the four teams did well enough to advance to the national semifinal round this weekend, she said.
Quest’s team has also ranked first out of state junior high teams all four years it has competed, Jones said.
The competition is sophisticated, Jones said, and demands a lot of training to get the team ready.
“Most of the students, when they come into the program, they don’t even know that those vulnerabilities exist, let alone how to patch them,” Jones said.
Jones estimates that her team has put in 60 hours on the competition so far, including practices and competitions. And they do this outside of school.
While some students are enrolled in a computer science class, that particular course doesn’t prepare them for the competition, she said.
Her team is holding its own against teams that do have access to classes that teach cybersecurity skills — like teams in Silicon Valley, Virginia and other teams near Air Force bases.
“It kind of surprises me that we’re this close to Hill Air Force Base, but yet we haven’t had the support to be able to set up a class like that yet,” Jones said, “but it is something we’re working toward.”