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Ask any movie executive, Wall Street mogul or random kid with an iPhone and they’ll confirm what you probably already know: The threat of a cyberattack isn’t going away any time soon. In a bold move, the Air Force Association (AFA) is preparing current middle and high school students to be America’s next best defense against cyberattacks with the  Cyber Patriot program. A forward-thinking, extra-curricular program, it is overseen by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) branch of Beyond the Bell in the state of California.

The Goal

“Cyber security extends to every field today, from oil drilling to media,” says Jay Gehringer, Cyber Patriot’s Program Coach at North Hollywood High in North Hollywood, California. “The program’s goal goes deeper than preparing kids for careers in cyber security. It also promotes acuity in science, technology, engineering and math.”

The program, which culminates annually in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, does more than that. It also teaches kids to thrive under pressure and develop the type of team-working skills paramount to success throughout a multitude of platforms.

The Competition

Held in Washington, D.C., the competition brings together each year’s top 12 teams from schools around the country. Early, online competitive rounds start out with over 1,000 teams striving to make it to the final match. The chosen represent each year’s best and represents thousands of collective hours of study and preparation as well as the support of educators and parents.

During the competition, each team goes through an exercise, role-playing as newly-hired IT professionals, tasked with managing a small company computer network. They are required to find cyber security vulnerabilities within virtual images representing operating systems, while simultaneously maintaining critical function plus fortifying each system. Initially the teams compete at the state and regional level. Those chosen to go on to the national competition earn all-expense paid trips to D.C. Each member of the team that wins the national competition will also receive a $2,000 scholarship.

The Team

In 2015, North Hollywood High will be represented by Coach Gehringer’s Azure team. Among the kids participating is 18-year-old Issac Kim. This is Kim’s third year on the team and he is more than ready. “The reason why I got involved in Cyber Patriot is because I’ve been working on computers since I was two and programming them since I was six. I put in at least eight hours every week preparing after school for the competition, but I try to organize my time so it doesn’t impact on my regular school studying,” says Kim. An only child, Kim’s parents are with him all the way. “My Dad’s been driving me to and from meetings,” says the high schooler, who plans to go on to a college near San Francisco and continue his studies in computer science.

“So much of what you hear about schools and teens these days is not very positive,” says Gehringer, whose commitment to his team is absolute. “These are public school kids competing against public and private school kids from all around the country. They’re doing good, rewarding things. I’m proud of these kids. No matter what happens in Washington, they’re all winners to me.”

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.