Byte Sized Falcons: Cyber Cup champs!

Scripps Ranch High School’s Byte Sized Falcons (from left) Brandon Nguyen, Shane Donahue, Valerie Ho, Evan Decker and Alex Roh hold the San Diego Mayor’s Cyber Cup and the $6,000 check they won for Scripps Ranch High in the SoCal Cyber Cup finals. (courtesy photo)

Byte Sized Falcons: Cyber Cup champs!

A local team of tech-talented students representing Scripps Ranch High School Feb. 16 in the finals of the 10th annual SoCal Cyber Cup Challenge, a competitive event designed to encourage and support student interest in the field of cybersecurity, captured first place in the high school division.

The event is produced by the San Diego Chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA).

The SoCal Cyber Cup Challenge gave students a chance to apply theories and practical skills they have learned, while also fostering a spirit of teamwork, ethical behavior and effective communication both within and across teams. Open to all high school and middle school students in San Diego, Imperial, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, nearly 400 students participated in the Cup’s qualification round this year. Scripps Ranch High’s team, the “Byte Sized Falcons,” is one of eight high school finalists and seven middle school finalists that competed for the title, a trophy and prize money for their school. According to the NDIA website, since the cup began, the organization has awarded more than $100,000 to help schools build their cyber programs.

Scripps Ranch High School’s Byte Sized Falcons won the San Diego Mayor’s Cyber Cup and $6,000 for the school in the Feb. 16 finals of the SoCal Cyber Cup, sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association. Shown at work during the competition are (from left) Falcons Brandon Nguyen, Valerie Ho, Evan Decker, Shane Donahue and Alex Roh. (courtesy photo)

The Byte Sized Falcons are all seniors and all members of the Scripps Ranch High School Air Force JROTC program, led by Air Force Master Sergeant Ferdinand Toledo. Team members include Evan Dicker, Shane Donahue, Valerie Ho, Brandon Nguyen and Alex Roh. For the last seven years, the team has competed in CyberPatriots, a youth cyber education program created by the Air Force Association to inspire K-12 students toward cybersecurity or other science, technology, education and math (STEM) fields.

“We’ve qualified for nationals in CyberPatriots two years in a row,” Donahue said.

This is the first time, however, that the Falcons have competed in the SoCal Cyber Cup.

Speaking before the event, Donahue said he expected the finals to be a “capture the flag” type of competition, with clues contained in questions offered like in the game show “Jeopardy.”

“Flags are hidden (throughout) the system, and you follow clues and answer the questions to find the flags,” he said.

“Every time we answer a question correctly, we get a flag and the team with the most flags wins,” Nguyen explained.

“For instance, someone puts a malicious program on the computer, and you have to find out who owns (the program),” Donahue said. “If you look at who owns it, you can find the flag.”

Donahue and Nguyen explained that the team would set up a board containing each challenge they are faced with, and each team member will pick one to go after. If someone had trouble with their question, others pitched in to help.

Scripps Ranch High School’s Byte Sized Falcons include (from left) Evan Dicker, Valerie Ho, Shane Donahue, Brandon Nguyen and Alex Roh. (courtesy photo)

Throughout the competition students utilized the Haiku Cyber Range, a cloud-based technology provided with support from Amazon Web Services, to defend simulated systems that were under cyber-attack. Working in the cloud, teams from all over Southern California could access the cyber range and compete in practice, qualification and final rounds from any location. For the finals, the students got to work at the San Diego Supercomputer Center located at the University of California, San Diego.

Donahue feels the competition helps him and his teammates sharpen skills they’ll use in their future cyber careers.

“Its digital forensics work, so it helps you with system administration work,” he said. “There’s a lot of digging around in system files and services. Essentially, forensics and some administration, which are both highly valued job skills, I believe.”

Master Sergeant Toledo gives all credit for the Byte Sized Falcons’ success to the students.

“These guys are amazing, they’re all self-taught in their field of knowledge,” he said. “These (students) have competed against the best teams across the country, and they’ve had very little coaching at all. I’m their advisor. I wouldn’t say ‘coach’ because I don’t coach them. I have no idea what they’re doing, honestly. These guys are the experts, not me.”

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