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CHHS Team Reaches Nationals of GirlsGoCyberStart

“It’s like you’re pretending to be a secret agent,” said Madelyn Good, describing the experience of competing in GirlsGoCyberStart, the cybersecurity contest for high school girls. Good is a senior at Chapel Hill High School (CHHS), a member of FemSTEM, and one of the four students chosen from a team of 12 to advance to the national level of competition. “Last year was my first time participating in GirlsGoCyberStart, and I started with zero programming experience,” Good said. “I had no idea what I was doing, never used Linux before, it was all very new to me.” 

Lucy Brannon, a freshman at CHHS, is also on the nationals team, even though she has not yet taken any courses in the Academy of Information Technology (AOIT). “My interest in cybersecurity mostly began this year when my dad (who works at CISCO in information security) encouraged me to join the FemSTEM club,” Brannon said. “I think that it's a really interesting field that is definitely worth exploring. If you like logic problems, you'll love cybersecurity. It's just a giant set of puzzles.”

The mission of GirlsGoCyberStart, as stated on the website, is “To create a platform where every girl who enjoys creative thinking, problem solving and reading between the lines can explore cybersecurity in a safe, barrier-free environment.” The organization’s goal is to encourage more young women to join the ranks of cybersecurity professionals, traditionally a male-dominated field. Their website promises a “gamified environment where students play as ‘Cyber Agents’ solving digital crimes by cracking codes, finding security flaws, and dissecting a cyber criminal’s digital trail.”

“This is the third year the FemSTEM club has competed in GirlsGoCyberStart,” said Jennifer Walker, CHHS CTE Cisco Networking Academy Instructor and adviser to FemSTEM. It is the first year a CHCCS team has advanced to the national level, which will take place on May 20.

Walker and the team members were only notified of their success during the first week of May. “We started the competition in January,” Walker said. “Two members competed in the past and helped us get started. Other members had no experience. While school was in session, FemSTEM members met once a week to work on tasks. When the pandemic hit, students reached out to me to coordinate times for the club to meet online to continue to work through challenges. Students started meeting once a week online to work and help each other out as needed through the different tasks.” 

Good is a “CTE completer” in the Audio and Visual Production pathway; she has taken a full progression of courses from Adobe Visual Design to Adobe Digital Design, Adobe Video Design, and Audio Engineering. “While I may still have a strong interest in graphic and digital design,” Good said, “Right now, I'd say I've gone from pretty much zero interest in cybersecurity to really being pulled in that direction, thanks to GirlsGoCyberStart. It has really motivated me to pursue computer science as a possible major and explore careers in the field of information technology.”

Carly Zhao is a sophomore team member who is co-president of FemSTEM. “I haven't taken any CTE classes yet because of the lack of space in my schedule, but I plan on taking them in the future. My interest in cybersecurity came when GirlsGoCyberStart started this year. I've done coding camps and classes before high school and this event has sparked my interest again. I figured, why not give it a try even though I wasn't super experienced.”

The fourth team member competing in nationals, Leyla Aydin, is also a sophomore and she is enrolled in the Biomedical Sciences CTE pathway. “I discovered this through FemSTEM with Mrs.Walker, and would consider a career in it,” Aydin said. “I think we all wanted something to work on together, despite our inability to meet in person, so we were all extra motivated! CyberStart is not too hard to move online, since it's technologically based anyway. We just improvised, using social media and email/ Google Meet to work together more closely.”

“I have enjoyed the learning process,” Brannon said, “and my favorite part has probably been just experimenting with things until I figure them out. GirlsGoCyberStart gives you a little handbook on the basic skills you need to know, and everything else is built off those, so I've really enjoyed playing with it.”

Last year, a couple of FemSTEM members encouraged Good to join them for the GirlsGoCyberStart competition. She reached the state finals. Good said, “I decided to try it, and somehow ended up winning a $500 state scholarship!”

“With this being Chapel Hill High's third year playing GirlsGoCyberStart, I definitely think we made it to nationals having more players and awareness of the competition,” Good said. “To be honest- winning shiny stuff, and having people make a big deal about you helps motivate, give us more confidence, and most importantly- gets more attraction, and creates a deeper interest and connection to cybersecurity.”

The students noted the appeal of working as a team in an environment made for online collaboration. Relatively little was lost when the team was forced to transition to meeting online twice a week.

“I think our team has come together and achieved at such a high level because there has been a really lovely community of amazing girls to communicate with and ask each other for help with problems,” Brannon said. “The team has really great vibes, and if you ask for help someone will definitely give it to you! Switching to only being able to communicate online hasn't been that hard. We have our regular club meetings through Google Meets and the girls in the club have a discord where we can chat about where we are at and what we need help with in the challenges. We've had a few get-togethers where we all work on a part of the challenges that none of us have done yet and just bounce ideas off each other for how to solve it. It's just been a great experience and I look forward to doing the challenges again next year!”

Good’s enthusiasm for GirlsGoCyberStart lights up her email discussions about the team’s success. “Having prior knowledge definitely gives you an advantage, but from someone like me who knew nothing about cybersecurity- I really want to get the girls who never even thought of doing this. Girls from non-tech classes, girls from theater, creative writing classes- all you need is a computer and an internet connection! Just try it! It's fun!”

 The four CHHS students will participate in an online Capture the Flag finals event from May 20-21, competing against other schools nationally to win first, second and third prizes- along with recognition from the Governor!