Contractor helps groom future cybersecurity specialists

Northrop Grumman contributes money and staff to a competition that will teach high school students to detect and fix computer vulnerabilities.

A major Defense Department contractor on Wednesday announced it is sponsoring a nationwide competition with the Air Force Association that is aimed at educating high school students to become information security professionals.

Northrop Grumman Corp. will fund a grant and offer volunteers to provide cybersecurity expertise to 100,000 students for a yearlong tournament called CyberPatriot, Northrop Grumman and AFA officials said during a Washington press briefing. Company officials would not disclose the dollar amount of the donation.

Registration starts Thursday for what is essentially an extended computer game. Students race to detect and correct cyber vulnerabilities in a virtual network. Teams are ranked on their success and speed.

"We use gaming to excite America's youth," said S. Sanford Schlitt, vice chairman of the board for aerospace education at the Air Force Association, a nonprofit organization that educates the public about aerospace power and the role it plays in national security. "Their mission is to defend and maintain service on a virtual network of computers."

The association first tested the program with Florida students in February 2009. In 2010, Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps students in 44 states participated in the competition.

This coming school year, for the first time, the tournament will be open to all high school students, including JROTC enrollees from every service. The competition will culminate in an April 2011 championship at the National Harbor in Washington. Last year's challenge involved thousands of students, but Northrop Grumman's sponsorship will permit 100,000 students to enter this year, association officials said.

"The Air Force certainly needs top-notch cyber defenders," said Joseph E. Sutter, AFA chairman of the board, adding that more technically advanced workers will be required as cyber threats increase in sophistication and frequency. "To realize full national deployment, we needed additional partners."

Northrop Grumman, which provides weapons and technology systems to the military, recently announced plans to relocate from Los Angeles to the Washington area. Specialists from the company's 120,000-employee workforce will coach students, their computer science instructors and club mentors, as well as help coordinate a parallel competition restricted to JROTC students.

"We're proud to be contributing our time and our resources as the presenting sponsor for Cyber Patriot III," said Diane Miller, program director for Northrop Grumman Information Systems.