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CyberPatriot trains kids to protect America from hackers

“I didn't really know what I wanted to do until I joined this club,” said Kaylee, a Colorado high schooler.

VIENNA, Virginia — The scene doesn't look all that different from study hall or an after school club meeting. Middle school students, aged 12 to 14, sit huddled around computers. There's light chatter but most kids are silent, intently focused, faces lit by the glow of their screens.

James Henry turns to his teammate Mitchell Yam and says, "Password complexity is enabled." Moments later, the tune from Mario Kart that sounds when a level is complete rings across the room. The students don't pause to celebrate; they just nod at each other and turn back to their screens.

"The goal is to score as many points as you can, and to do that you have to solve these issues that hackers can exploit to get into the computer," Henry explained later.

He and his teammates from Kilmer Middle School in this Washington, D.C. suburb are part of an annual cyber defense competition called CyberPatriot.

Staged in five rounds over six months, CyberPatriot pits teams of middle and high school students against each other as they try to secure their simulated computers against everything from malware and hackers to disgruntled former employees.

More than 25,000 students across the U.S. competed this year.

"Basically the kids get a scenario," Henry's coach and Kilmer Middle School information technology teacher Susie Suchodolski explained. "So they own a business and they have to protect that business from their employees and from people in the outside world that want to gain information about something on their computer system."

CyberPatriot competitors James Henry and Leigh Black with their coach Susie Suchodolski at Kilmer Middle School in Vienna, Virginia.
CyberPatriot competitors James Henry and Leigh Black with their coach Susie Suchodolski at Kilmer Middle School in Vienna, Virginia.NBC News

It's a skill that's in stark demand right now. As of March of this year, more than 300,000 cybersecurity jobs across the U.S. were unfilled, according to CyberSeek. The Center for Cyber Safety and Education predicts there will be a global shortage of 1.8 million cybersecurity professionals by 2022.

The struggle to attract and maintain top cyber talent was a recurring theme in confirmation hearings for Gen. Paul Nakasone, the new commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, who said talent recruitment would be his first priority going into the job.

Such a priority that Nakasone — a supporter of CyberPatriot — agreed to give NBC News' Cynthia McFadden his first interview since being confirmed.

"In being able to address that shortage, organizations like CyberPatriot are critical," Nakasone told McFadden.

"When we think about the future, think about what these young people are going to do. Whether or not they're in government, they decide to join the military, they're in private sector, this is the strength of our nation," he explained.

It was the same idea that propelled the non-profit Air Force Association (AFA) to start CyberPatriot back in 2009.

The AFA's board members saw a 2008 study from the Congressional Research Service that cited bleak statistics about America's future in math and science.

"We saw us falling behind in STEM education as a national security issue. If China and Russia have better STEM people, then we're going to fall behind in that," CyberPatriot's Deputy Commissioner Rachel Zimmerman explained.

Image: Lt. General Paul Nakasone, the new leader of U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA.
Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the new leader of U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA.NBC News

Meant to promote students' interest in STEM fields like cybersecurity and computer science, the AFA launched CyberPatriot with only eight teams in the Orlando, Florida area. Nearly a decade later, it has grown into a competition that draws kids from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The threats facing America's cyber infrastructure have grown with it.

Data breaches cost American companies $7.35 million on average last year, according to a study sponsored by IBM, and a data breach at Equifax compromised the personal information of more than 147 million Americans.

"Everybody uses a computer, no matter what industry you go into. Knowing how to secure it, and not being that employee who downloads malware onto your company's computer, is going to be beneficial no matter what you go into," Zimmerman said.

That logic appealed to a slew of organizations that agreed to help fund CyberPatriot, from Facebook and Symantec to the U.S. government itself.

Defense contractor Northrop Grumman, CyberPatriot's primary funder, rewards the competition's winners with thousands of dollars in college scholarship money.

To Nakasone, the fact that the program has drawn the interest of both government and the private sector is natural. "I think it speaks to the recognition, not only of the need, but the importance of what we do and what we're going to do in the future in cyberspace."

Ret. Gen. Suzanne Vautrinot even hired a team of CyberPatriot competitors as interns when she was leading the Air Force's cyber command.

"It was actually classified," Vautrinot said, "We got them clearances to be able to do work as a high school student, as an intern. And they learned on the floor. The next year, that team won CyberPatriot."

"You're not babysitting them," she explained, "You're injecting them with something that is going to make them a superhero in the future."

For Kaylee Kirkwood, 16, and her all-female team from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, cybersecurity wasn't an interest — let alone a passion — before they joined their high school's CyberPatriot club.

"It's mostly marketed towards boys. And they make the stereotype that it's like, 'Oh, well boys love videogames. Boys will be boys,' you know? And it makes it so girls, like even for me, I didn't even consider this to be a thing that I could be doing," Kirkwood said.

Despite being first-time competitors, Kirkwood and her team were among the less than one percent of CyberPatriot participants who made it to the final round held in Baltimore, Maryland.

One of the perks of making it that far is exposure to some of the biggest employers in technology and a tour of Northrop Grumman.

"They have people, they come in, to try to infiltrate the company, you know?" Kirkwood recalled, "It was just interesting to see how it's applied from a business standpoint."

"We get to connect with these people in more of a professional setting before we've even gotten to college or thought a lot about college, so it's really a game changer for a lot of us making our decisions," Kirkwood's teammate Katherine Rocha said.

It was certainly a game changer for Kirkwood, who has decided that she wants to pursue cybersecurity at the Air Force Academy after high school.

"I didn't really know what I wanted to do until I joined this club," Kirkwood went on, "Right now, you know, I do kind of want to go and pursue this as a career."