In April of this year, high school students from Iowa gathered at the Hilton Coliseum in Ames to match wits in a new kind of competition. They weren't testing their knowledge on traditional subjects like geography or history; they were competing at a computer "hackathon" to see who could code like a pro.
These students were participating in the 2014 IT-Olympics, sponsored by Iowa State University and the Technology Association of Iowa. This competition, along with other similar competitions taking place across the country, are part of an emerging grassroots effort to get young students interested in computer science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
The Technology Association of Iowa and Iowa State teamed up to form HyperStream, a program that helps Iowa high schools and middle schools establish after-school clubs focused on coding and cyber defense. These clubs were then invited to compete in the cyber competition to test their skills against technology professors and mentors brought in by the HyperStream program.
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These local efforts to improve cyber education at the high school level come at a time when the United States is falling behind in STEM education. According to the World Economic Forum, the United States is 52nd in the world in the quality of science and math education, and its overall competitiveness with other countries in on the decline. Among developed nations, American ranks 27th in the percentage of college students who get degrees in science or engineering. Some two-thirds of students who receive PhDs in engineering at U.S universities are not from the United States.
It also comes as the United States continues to wage an unseen cyber-war with China and other rivals, with the United States playing catch-up. American businesses are also under assault from hackers who recently stole millions of credit card numbers from Target and other business customers.
Tamara Kenworthy, program director at HyperStream, said the Olympics and other attempts to develop STEM skills at a young age are an attempt to close the cyber gap.
"About seven years ago, the number of students going into technology careers was dropping," Kenworthy said. "The lack of opportunity for kids getting involved in this [STEM] was very scary."
Iowa's first IT Olympics were held in 2009. In the 2014 competition, students competed in four disciplines — cyber-defense, robotics, game design, and multimedia. Students were split into teams of 10, and over a two-day period, competed in challenges designed to test their skills in each discipline.
Doug Jacobson, an Iowa State University professor and director of the university's Information Assurance Center, says the competition tests basic defensive cyber-skills needed to study STEM at the collegiate level.
"We're more of an intramural sport," Jacobson said. "We follow an inquiry based learning model where our students set up their own networks and have to defend them. They have to set up servers; they have to defend their servers."
Some 1,700 students at 110 clubs across Iowa participate in HyperStream. Of those, about 700 competed in the Olympics. "We really expanded the student base and we are getting a lot more students into the program because we need to get more kids excited about this. Right now, we're about 75 percent boys, 25 percent girls. One of our goals is to get more girls involved," Kenworthy said.
At the national level, students can compete in the CyberPatriot competition, which brings together clubs from around the country. However, there are a number of local programs that simply aim to introduce students to STEM. For instance, Illinois State University sponsors the Central Illinois High School Cyber Defense Competition.
"The college level has been doing the collegiate cyber defense competition for about 10 years. We had participated in the competition as a university for a couple of years," said Doug Twitchell, assistant professor at Illinois State University who helped to organize the Illinois' competition. We thought, 'Why couldn't we do something similar at the high school level?' High schools within 100 miles can bring the students in and take part."
Unlike Iowa, Illinois does not have a formal high school infrastructure to prepare students for the competition. He said that any student who is interested in STEM was welcome to attend, even if they hadn't been taught coding before.
"The biggest problem we found at the high school level is that students are intimidated. There is so little curriculum in K through 12," he said. "They don't teach them programming. If there is, it's usually once every couple of years."
"We say that you don't have to take a computer class before," Twitchell added. "We try to show them some stuff and teach them some of the basics."
At the very least, Twitchell said the goal of the competition is to expose students to a possible line of work that they had not considered.
"We want to get them excited about this," he said. "Everyone is looking for the best and brightest students. This is one of the ways to help those who have a talent for this to find this field and see it as something they would want to do for a living."
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