Wetumpka High School CyberPatriot team

Submitted / The Herald

WHS students participate in a cybersecurity competition sponsored by the Air Force Association. The teams placed first and second at the state competition and 16th and 26th out of 1,463 teams at the national competition.

Wetumpka High School can claim it has some of the most knowledgeable IT high school students in the state and the country.

The school’s CyberPatriot team took first and second place at state and 16th and 26th place out of 1,463 teams at nationals in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition.

“This competition introduces them to cybersecurity,” team sponsor Dr. Virginia A. Vilardi said. “In fact, a lot of our students who come through here go to college in cybersecurity. They do internships with several IT companies in the region.

“There are a lot of IT companies in the area because of Maxwell and Gunter (Air Force bases) are very high with cybersecurity and the IT world. They hire a lot of our kids or they help go to college then go back and work for them.”

Elmore County Schools STEM director Tracy Wright echoed Vilardi’s statement to her students.

“Four thousand new jobs are coming in to Huntsville at Redstone Arsenal,” he said. “That’s going to be solely for cybersecurity. Four thousand jobs (will be) sitting there waiting for you guys when you graduate.”

According to contest rules, the competition is broken down into three tiers which are silver, gold and platinum. 

The tier is determined by where a team scores in the first two rounds going into state and national competition.

“In gold, we are one and two in the state,” Vilardi said. “Gold is the largest tier.”

Each competition day lasts six hours. The students are allowed to use three computers to solve the issues presented.

“It’s an online competition,” Vilardi said. “They have a day and they have to solve what is wrong. The students are doing what is called white hat hacking.”

The students are tasked with managing the network of a small company. Teams are given a set of virtual operating systems and are tasked with finding and fixing cybersecurity vulnerabilities while maintaining critical services.  

It was Vilardi’s husband who ran across information about CyberPatriot and the competitions about six years ago. 

“My husband is an Air Force retired captain,” Vilardi said. “He saw this advertised, probably in one of his meetings, and thought it would be a good addition to the program that we were doing here with robotics. He works in that field and thought this would be a way for our students to set into a good program.”

Vilardi said the accolades are satisfying, but it is the real-world experience she sees as the main benefit of participating in this program.

“Last year, the captain of the CyberPatriot team landed an internship at an IT firm in Montgomery,” Vilardi said. “The captain before her, same thing. The scholarship money and opportunities for students going into this field are phenomenal.”

CyberPatriot is youth education program created by the Air Force Association (AFA) to inspire students toward careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.