Middle school students from Oak Valley and Design 39 Campus swept a national cybersecurity competition by winning all three top honors.
The three middle school teams, along with a group from Del Norte High School that placed third in the Open Division, were all finalists in the CyberPatriot XI national competition recently held in Baltimore.
“Winning was really exciting,” said Oak Valley eighth grader Akshay Rohatgi, CyberAegis Chaos team captain. “It was a very tough competition with the other schools very good. We were comparing scores and realized it was really close.
“We knew how good they are because they have beaten us on several occasions, so we have a great deal of respect (for them),” 14-year-old Rohatgi said. “That we were able to beat them (at nationals) was a well-earned victory.”
The teams knew how vast their top competitors’ cybersecurity knowledge and skills were because not only have they competed against one another in CyberPatriot qualification and semi-final rounds plus other cybersecurity competitions, but they also train together under the guidance of Paul Johnson, their volunteer coach from Northrop Grumman.
At each competition, students were presented real-life scenarios in which they had to fight off computer hackers and find computer system vulnerabilities in the Windows and Linux systems. During the national finals, students had an additional complication as they faced off against cybersecurity professionals who tried to break into their systems, which the teams had to keep up and running while defending against the attackers.
“I think what helped us win was that we had very good teamwork and have been training for hours every week once we realized we were going to the finals,” Rohatgi said. “We developed a lot of teamwork and during the competition assured each other that if our service went down we could ask (each other for help).”
Joining Rohatgi on CyberAegis Chaos were Oak Valley eighth graders Akhil Guntur, Jonathan Lin and Alvin Zheng, plus seventh graders Aadit Gupta and Alex Jiang.
The team knew it had been doing well throughout this year’s competition. After the first two qualification rounds in January it was the only middle school team nationally to have perfect scores.
“To win the national championship, everything has to be perfect on all cylinders,” Johnson said, who per the rules had to stay at least 10 feet away from the teams during the national contest so as not to influence their work.
The national Middle School Division runner-up and Cisco Networking Challenge Winner was CyberAegis Kronos. The team from Design 39 Campus consisted of eighth graders Ashika Palacharla and Raiden Tung, plus seventh graders Aarav Arora (team captain), Rohan Juneja, Safin Singh and Vardaan Sinha.
Arora, 13, — whose older brother, Akul, was on the third-place Open Division team — said his brother was a factor in him joining the team this year.
“After seeing him in 10th and 11th grade (go) to nationals, it really inspired me,” Aarav Arora said. “I wanted the same success, to follow in his footsteps and be successful like him.
“The experience was really great ... and taught me a lot,” Aarav Arora said. “At nationals I learned so much and was exposed to cybersecurity (experts). I hope to come back stronger next year.”
He said the Cisco Networking Challenge was a separate, but related, component to the CyberPatriot contest that consisted of a quiz and hands-on activity involving network routers and switches.
The third-place Middle School Division team was CyberAegis Aether, consisting of Oak Valley eighth graders Samhitha Duggirala, Rachel Lee (team captain), Ellen Xu and Audrey Zeng, plus seventh grader Andrea Wang.
Johnson said while each year he does not specifically try to form an all-girls team, if he has enough girls whose cyber skills complement one another in a way to make them contenders for the national finals, he creates an all-girls team for the opportunity it presents in the male-dominated field.
“I’d really like to see an all-girls team win (nationals),” Johnson said. “There will be one, one of these days, and I’d like it to be mine.”
Lee, a 14-year-old eighth grader who joined the team in sixth grade, said during her first year she was on a coed team, but the last two years on an all-girls team.
“Subconsciously my goal was always to go to nationals and do good, but I never thought it would happen,” Lee said. “I’m really proud of what the girls team accomplished. As a team we look up to (women working in cybersecurity) and worked so hard to embody those strong, independent women.”
Lee said there is a difference between a coed and all-girls team in how members work together. “It’s not necessarily the way we approach a problem, but treat each other. Girls are more soft (in approach) and boys more direct. I’ve been on both and there are pros and cons.
“All-girls teams love and support each other, we bond and there is a chemistry ... and we are more willing to look at mistakes as a whole. It’s not any one person’s fault,” Lee said. “Boys are more direct, saying this person needs to work harder next time.”
Teams have the option of five or six members. While the other finalist teams had six, the all-girls had five. Lee explained that is because a sixth member typically serves as an alternate or brings a specialized skill to the team. CyberAegis Aether had five because its members “were pretty well rounded in all fields, so there was not the necessity for a sixth person,” she said.
In the Open Division, the CyberAegis Chobani team members were Del Norte High School seniors Akul Arora (team captain) and Daniel Chen, plus juniors Eric Chen, Lucy Gao, Pranav Patil and Andrew Wang.
Going to nationals was nothing new for the high schoolers and the four juniors on the team were the CyberPatriot VIII Middle School National Champions when they were eighth graders.
Akul Arora said a friend encouraged him to join the team as a freshman and he soon “fell in love with the environment. I love working on computers. It is meaningful work.
“The best part is I love how applicable it is to the real world ... it opens a whole new set of doors for a career,” he said.
Since being on the cybersecurity competitive teams, Akul Arora said he has done internships in the field — this summer will be at Northrop Grumman — and he plans on studying electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley in the fall.
“That’s the next step in me becoming a cybersecurity engineer,” he said. “I hope to be involved in research in cybersecurity and be on the collegiate cyber defense competitive team.”
While Akul Arora, 17, said he became a bit “desensitized” to the excitement at competing in the CyberPatriot national finals — since it was his third trip — “this was one of the best nationals. It was amazing this year to place in the top three ... to be one of the best cybersecurity teams.”
He said the students not only learn computer and real-life skills — such as leadership and teamwork — but at nationals they met a lot of people in the industry, connections that will help him in the future. “The competition opens a lot of doors,” he said.
Since Johnson only oversees their work, but topics in their weekly Saturday classes are researched and taught by the students to each other, additional leadership skills are learned through that format as well.
“It’s 100 percent student taught,” Akul Arora said. “We take charge of the class and are really productive.”
Having his younger brother in the class with him has been “real exciting for us, really fun ... for both of us,” Akul Arora said.
For Johnson, watching his students do so well has been enjoyable and his teams have earned themselves a reputation as being the ones to beat. During this year’s qualifying rounds, Poway Unified School District had 44 middle and high school teams registered, with 26 of them under Johnson’s coaching (14 Del Norte, seven Oak Valley and five Design 39 Campus). In a previous competition, he was the first coach to simultaneously take five teams to the national finals and he coached the 2017-18 and 2015-16 middle school national champion teams.
Johnson said he came close to coaching a “sweep” during a previous competition, when two of the top three middle school teams were those he coached. He is the first in the contest’s 11 years to coach the top three teams in a division.
This year, upon going up on stage with his students a third time to accept a middle school honor, Johnson said the competition’s national commissioner, Bernie Skoch, stopped him and told the audience that Johnson was “the finest middle school coach in the country.”
The middle school students received trophies and medals. The high schoolers as third-place finalists received $1,000 scholarships in addition to their medals and trophy.
According to the contest’s website, there were 6,387 teams registered for CyberPatriot XI. They were divided among three divisions: Open had 3,293 registered teams, of which 2,595 came from public high schools. All-Service had 1,851 teams from various service branches’ ROTC units. Middle School had 1,243 teams. They came from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. Department of Defense schools in Europe and the Pacific, plus 12 other countries.
Per its website, “CyberPatriot is the National Youth Cyber Education Program created by the Air Force Association to inspire K-12 students toward careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines critical to our nation’s future.”