Growing up, Richard Parker could have easily given up. His mother was absent and he lived with his grandmother in Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood rife with poverty and lacking in opportunity. CyberPatriot gave Richard the ticket out of Watts and into the world of STEM.
At an early age, Richard was intrigued by computers and wanted to learn more about them, taking them apart and rebuilding them piece by piece. “I’ve always wanted to create my own computer hardware, but if I can be better than Steve Jobs, I want to be.”
At Locke Charter School in Watts, Richard’s aspirations of becoming the next computer pioneer proved to be difficult at first. “We didn’t have any special classes like woodshop, computer science, or programming,” Richard said. Without the proper curriculum, he didn’t have the means to further his passion for technology and the Internet.
That changed when Richard’s school got involved with the CyberPatriot program in 2010. Carey Peck, principal of the Beyond the Bell after school programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), saw the importance of encouraging high school students to consider science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. While LAUSD educates more than 150,000 students a year, only 2.9% of adults 25 and over in Watts have 4-year college degrees.
“We were looking at getting involved in the STEM discipline, which we saw as the pathway to the future,” he said. With that in mind, LAUSD partnered with CyberPatriot, the National Youth Cyber Education Program.
Teams of 2 to 6 students compete in preliminary, online rounds on weekends in October through January, and the top 30 teams advance to the national finals in Washington, D.C. in March. There, they compete face-to-face, defending virtual networks while protecting critical services such as email and web servers from attacks. The competition has grown rapidly, from 8 teams in 2009 to 1500 in 2014.
Cisco began supporting CyberPatriot in 2012, creating an aspect of the competition focused on defending networks and mobile devices, and providing curriculum and tools from the Cisco Networking Academy to help students train. Dozens of Cisco employees also mentor CyberPatriot teams.
As a senior at Locke, Richard’s statistics classmates convinced him to take part in CyberPatriot. “My friends knew about it and told me to join this computer competition,” Richard said. “I liked CyberPatriot because computers were considered a sport and it was competitive. It had that same feeling as baseball, where you go in, compete, and try to win together.”
When the LAUSD began its partnership with CyberPatriot, competitors succeeded in the face of difficult challenges.
“We knew we didn’t have all the advantages of other areas, which had more learning resources,” Richard said. “We had a couple books and a lot of free online tools like YouTube, and we also had a lot of people on our side.”
Because most of Richard’s teammates had no prior experience with computers, he was forced to take on a leadership role. “I was at a different level than everybody else,” he said. “I was programming when no one knew anything besides [online game] Runescape.” In order to make up for their lack of experience, the team spent eight hours every Saturday taking computer science classes at Los Angeles Southwest College prior to the competition.
In 2011, Richard’s team qualified for the national finals, earning an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. “It was the first time in his life that he took a transcontinental flight,” Carey said of Richard. “He walked into the lobby of the hotel and looked up at the 18-story atrium. At that moment, I think he realized that they got there on their own effort, that this was a reward for all of their hard work.”
The team didn’t win, but Richard learned valuable lessons from his experience. “You learn project management skills because there is a time limit on everything,” he said. “We had to prioritize things and keep track of time.”
Carey has seen the impact that CyberPatriot has had on students. “One of the interesting ways CyberPatriot helps students is by developing their soft skills,” he said. “They learned teamwork, communication skills, management, and mental discipline.”
Following the CyberPatriot competition, Richard attended California State University, Northridge, where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and worked as a help desk administrator.
He also volunteered as a CyberPatriot mentor at Locke, riding the bus 3 hours each way to share his passion for technology with students who face the same challenges he did.
Although some students couldn’t access the Internet, Richard taught them wherever he could, from the local Boys and Girls Club to a teacher’s home. “I know I can lead another team and I want other kids to get into it because it’s the way of the future,” he said.
Richard also started a CyberPatriot team called Layer8 at his college, as part of the program’s expansion beyond high schools. “We finished dead last my first year and had no idea how hard it would be,” Richard said. “The college level is like learning how to swim by being thrown in the ocean.” But, Richard enjoys the challenge and wants to continue to improve his skills so that he may one day start his own business.
Carey believes CyberPatriot not only prepared Richard for a career in STEM, but helped him grow as an individual. “Richard learned how to interview, direct his team, and respond to questions. CyberPatriot gave him the boost he needed and the tools to succeed.”