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Teacher Prepares High-Schoolers for Cybersecurity Careers

"What I really enjoy is that they all have internships and jobs and send me letters after they’ve graduated telling me how well they’re doing."

Lisa Oyler, Cisco Networking Academy Instructor

The CyberPatriot competition isn’t a sport, but don’t tell Lisa Oyler that. The high school computer science teacher has used the competitive, team-based contest to inspire her students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by building on the knowledge they gain from the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum.

Creating connections for students

Before Summit Technology Academy opened in 1998, Lisa was juggling a lot: raising her two young children, pursuing a master’s degree in business, and finishing her teaching credentials.

Two years later, she got even busier when Summit hired her to teach computer courses. To prepare, she taught herself basic networking skills over the summer and earned different IT credentials, covering a curriculum that included 43 chapters in 18 weeks. 

Summit is a public, pre-professional school for high school students in Lee’s Summit, Missouri that prepares students for careers through hands-on learning. It offers courses in everything from digital media to computer networking.

In 2001, Summit began using the Cisco Networking Academy curriculum and emphasizing networking skills.

“In the summer, I spent three weeks training to become a Cisco instructor,” Lisa says. Then, she challenged her students with engaging classroom activities. “We started out with four routers and a switch,” she says. “We had a bunch of software donated and the kids put it together to form their own network.” 

Building a network was just the start. Every year, Lisa put her students through a demanding, rigorous curriculum, squeezing four semesters into less than 10 months.

“Hands-on learning is enjoyable from a teaching perspective,” Lisa said. “It’s a difficult curriculum for students, with a lot of information.” 

Lisa teaches networking courses at Summit, which prepares students to take the Cisco CCENT and CCNA exams and succeed in entry-level security specialist careers. “Networking Academy is constantly changing,” she says. “My students are doing exactly what is happening in the industry today.”

As Lisa taught more and more students, the CyberPatriot’s National Youth Cyber Defense Competition was gaining in popularity. Lisa’s students had the skills to excel in this hands-on competition operated by the Air Force Association.

From 2011 to 2014, Lisa coached four CyberPatriot teams and took three of them to the National Finals. Just a few years ago, she coached Summit’s first all-female team in the competition.

Wired to succeed in cybersecurity

At the CyberPatriot National Finals, students compete face-to-face to defend virtual networks, reducing vulnerabilities like weak passwords and firewalls while protecting things like email and web servers from attacks.

The real-world situations are designed to inspire students to pursue careers in cybersecurity and STEM.

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 NetAcad to help students train. 

After finding out about CyberPatriot from Summit’s director, “I asked the students if they wanted to get involved and they were excited and signed up right away,” Lisa says. 

At the end of the preliminary rounds of CyberPatriot V in 2013, Lisa’s team—only her second ever to compete in CyberPatriot—qualified as one of the top 12 teams in the nation and earned a trip to the National Finals in Washington, D.C.

“People in the industry told us ‘go to the Nationals to learn, don’t expect to win,’” Lisa says. “To me, we had already won by finishing in the top 12.”

John Madick, a mentor to Lisa’s teams since she began coaching, remembers the difficulty of the final rounds.

“The architect of the Cisco challenge told our students they wouldn’t finish that part of the competition,” he says. “Our kids took that as a challenge and actually finished the exercise in the time frame.” 

Not only did the team finish the exercise, they won the entire Cisco portion of the competition, scoring more points than the second and third teams combined. In the next round, which featured even more machines and threats, the students competed but fell short of first place.

“They went through it, maintained their cool, and it was much different than the first rounds,” John says. “But the kids were boosted by their confidence from winning the Cisco exercise.”

“That year, the students learned a lot,” Lisa says. “Having that understanding of networking and cybersecurity gives them the confidence to do better in future competitions.”

With their Networking Academy education and Lisa’s coaching, the students were prepared to face any of CyberPatriot’s future challenges.

A growing network of competitors

Justin Nitz started his CyberPatriot career as a sophomore at Summit and never looked back. Once a music major, Justin finished high school with an associate’s degree in computer science.

“I fell in love with CyberPatriot immediately,” Justin says. For someone who enjoyed playing video games and using computers, watching juniors and seniors competing in such a competitive environment took Justin’s interest to new levels.

He spent well over 100 hours that year preparing for the competition, meeting with the older students and Lisa every Tuesday and Thursday to study Cisco curriculum and practice protecting networks. 

All of that practice paid off, and Lisa took two teams to the CyberPatriot VI National Finals in March 2014. Justin, part of “Kernel Panic,” took first place in the Cisco networking portion of the competition and fifth place overall in the Open Division.

Lisa’s other team, “Team Sudo,” finished in second place in the Cisco portion and third place overall in the Open Division. Their success stems from Lisa’s passion for teaching and coaching, and she expects nothing less from her students. “If we’re going to National Finals, we’re going to win the Cisco competition.”

Lisa’s team didn’t win the entire competition that year, but the memories they made will last forever.

“I’ve never seen them smile bigger than they have on stage,” Lisa says. “One of my student’s parents said their son had never been on a winning team.”

Turning education into cybersecurity careers

CyberPatriot competitors spend months preparing to beat 1600 other teams, but Lisa also understands how important the program is for preparing her students for careers in STEM.

“It’s great that they do well in the competition and it’s something that they can walk away with and use after high school,” she says. Like Justin, another of her former students turned his CyberPatriot memories into a career reality.

Kevin Schulmeister, who mentors two of Lisa’s teams today, started his own technology support and consulting company with two former CyberPatriot teammates. They competed and now work together to serve small businesses in the Kansas City area.

“Networking Academy and CyberPatriot gave me the base of knowledge to understand technology and apply it in a business setting,” Kevin says.

Students are more excited than ever to work in STEM and know their skills will be in demand once they graduate from high school and college.

“When students go to Nationals and hear people from the industry saying ‘we need a future workforce for these high-paying, in-demand jobs,’ it’s changing their decision-making process,” she says. 

“Lisa is an excellent teacher and her networking students have an absolute mastery of the competition,” John says. “She made it so our kids were excited and thrilled to be a part of CyberPatriot.”

Lisa’s teaching and coaching continue to inspire students, and she expects many of them to find jobs in networking and cybersecurity.

“I look forward to the start of school because of CyberPatriot,” Lisa says. “What I really enjoy is that they all have internships and jobs and send me letters after they’ve graduated telling me how well they’re doing.”

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