Wanted: High school students to fight off computer hackers

AMES, Iowa -- You've got to be vigilant to catch a computer hacker.

That's why Iowa's second High School Cyber Defense Competition at Iowa State University will keep teams of students up all night. It really does take round-the-clock work to keep hackers out of the teams' computer networks.

High school students work their computers

A team of high school students works to protect a computer network from hackers during Iowa's first High School Cyber Defense Competition in May 2005.

And yes, the high schoolers at last spring's first 15-hour competition "consumed large amounts of food and caffeine," said Doug Jacobson, a competition organizer and Iowa State associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. "It was a large 'I-T' party."

But it was an information technology party with a purpose.

There are calls for the United States and Iowa to keep their economies competitive by educating more students in science and technology. A 2006 report by the National Academies, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," notes that China graduated an estimated 350,000 engineers, computer scientists and information technologists in 2004. The United States graduated an estimated 140,000 students in those fields that year. And in Iowa, a 2005 report prepared by Battelle for the Iowa Department of Economic Development said the state should grow its small information technology sector to support and advance the state's economy.

And Jacobson said U.S. and Iowa companies aren't about to export all of their information security jobs overseas.

"There's a job market," he said. "Information security is definitely a hot area of information technology. Companies want their information security people in the building."

The Cyber Defense Competition is one way to get that message to high school students.

This year's competition will be from 7 p.m. Friday, May 18, to 10 a.m. Saturday, May 19, in Iowa State's Internet-Scale Event and Attack Generation Environment. High school teams of six to eight students will be supplied with free computers, equipment, DVD lectures and other materials to help them prepare for the competition.

So far, 10 teams (from schools in Ames, Ankeny, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Muscatine and Newton) have signed up for the competition. Organizers are hoping for a field of 30 teams. Students or teachers interested in establishing teams can find more information at www.iasga.org or by contacting Julie Rursch, a competition organizer and Iowa State doctoral student in computer engineering, at jrursch@iastate.edu.

Last year's competition featured 10 teams. Jacobson said the high school students demonstrated some skill in building computer networks and holding off hackers.

"I was impressed with how all the teams did," he said. "They were quite focused. And I would have stacked a few of them against our college students."

The High School Cyber Defense Competition is sponsored by Iowa State's Information Assurance Student Group Association, Hy-Vee, ACT Inc., the Technology Association of Iowa, Farm Bureau Financial Services, Principal Financial Group, InfraGard and Iowa State's Information Assurance Center.