The Cape Central High School Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFJROTC) Cyber Patriot Team has made an impressive showing in its inaugural year by winning the Missouri state competition title in cyber defense with training from Southeast Missouri State University cybersecurity students.
Central’s AFJROTC cyber team, formed in September 2018, competed in CyberPatriot, an annual cyber defense competition with nearly 5,000 high school cyber teams from across the United States and Canada. Teams compete virtually by solving specific computer system challenges, building and securing networks, and resolving security vulnerabilities on various operating systems such as Windows, Linux and Cisco. The competition is sponsored by the Air Force Association and Northrop-Grumman Foundation.
After forming in September, the cadets competed in three rounds of competitions in December and January and advanced to win the Missouri All-Service Cyber-Patriot Title, prevailing against 14 other Missouri-based JROTC and Civil Air Patrol teams.
“It was truly amazing to see this young team really take off and compete, let alone win the state round, against other teams that have been doing this competition for months or even years,” said Col. Mike Goodin, Central’s AFJROTC senior aerospace science instructor.
The team’s success was enabled by the outstanding partnership with Southeast’s Department of Computer Science and two students on Southeast’s Cyber Defense Team, the seven-year reigning champions of the Missouri Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.
“Once we decided to set up a team, I knew there was only one place to go to get the expertise needed to compete, and that was Southeast,” Goodin said. “We definitely couldn’t have achieved this level of success without the superb guidance, patience and experience of Southeast’s students.”
Southeast’s cybersecurity program has swelled from 15 students in its infancy in 2011 to more than 150 students today, with 60 students having completed cybersecurity degrees since the first cohort completed the program in spring 2014. The program is one of only four nationally to hold accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET) and graduates are meeting the growing need for security of computer networks and systems that store digital personal, financial, health and governmental records. They regularly secure employment with top-level firms including, AIG, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Dell Secure Works, Enterprise, Express Scripts, Ameren and Mandiant, and locally with Big River Telecom, Element 74, Visient and area law firms.
Goodin reached out to Dr. Vijay Anand, director of Southeast’s cybersecurity program, faculty advisor to Southeast’s Cyber Defense team and associate professor of computer science, who selected Southeast senior Connor McGarr of Cape Girardeau and Southeast freshman Jack Gavin of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, both cybersecurity majors, for their technical skills, competition knowledge, and real-world experiences.
Both are members of Southeast’ Cyber Defense Club and Cyber Defense Team. Additionally, McGarr has earned his Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) and completed an information technology internship at Ameren, while Gavin is a member of Anand’s core cybersecurity research group.
After a meeting with Goodin and Anand to establish timeframes of coaching sessions and collaboration outcomes, McGarr and Gavin began coaching the AFJROTC cadets in September 2018, providing technical support and mentorship.
McGarr said coaching Central’s AFJROTC cyber team was an opportunity to help the next generation hone their skills and prepare for possible careers in defending against growing cyber threats.
“This was a good opportunity to pass on the knowledge I wish I had at their age and to help them develop their skills,” he said.
McGarr and Gavin spent an hour and half every Tuesday and Thursday evening guiding the AFJROTC cyber team towards victory.
“We had to get down on the same level as them and not assume they know everything we do,” McGarr said. “We helped their team start from scratch and build up.”
The Southeast students and cadets sacrificed their time and energy, and McGarr said the cadets’ willingness to learn is a testament to their success.
“It’s been a tough journey, but it’s amazing to think about how some other school was the champion last year, and this new team toppled them this year,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Despite never imagining himself as a mentor, McGarr said he learned and grew a lot as a student and professional from this experience.
“Coaching developed soft skills that I’ll definitely need and use when I graduate,” he said. “A lot of what a cybersecurity job entails is relaying technical information to administrators or executives who may not know or understand the lingo and procedures.”
Now with a championship title under their belt, the AFJROTC Cyber Patriot Team is already looking to next year.
Through the remainder of the spring semester, McGarr and Gavin plan to help the cadets create a team playbook. By writing plays for each individual role and for the team as a whole, something Southeast’s Cyber Defense Team has and consistently updates each year, the Southeast students hope Central’s AFJROTC cyber team will continue to succeed.
The cadets are already looking forward to a repeat performance next year, said Goodin.
“Their early success is a testament to the hard work and dedication put forth by Cape Central AFJROTC team members and their Southeast coaches alike,” he said. “We’re looking forward to next year and even a berth to the national semi-finals.”