The team photo of Toby Johnson Middle School's CyberBots.

By fighting off hackers and securing computer networks, a team of Toby Johnson Middle School students ranked second in a national cybersecurity competition.

The Elk Grove school’s CyberBots team was one of thousands that entered CyberPatriot, the Air Force Association’s youth cybersecurity competition.

This tournament hosts divisions for middle school students, high school students, and members of JROTC and similar programs. Out of the 754 middle school teams that entered this year, three advanced to the national competition, including CyberBots.

As demand rises among employers for cybersecurity expertise, the CyberBots captain and coach, and Elk Grove City Council Member Kevin Spease, believe the program prepares students for their futures.

After the weekend of the nationals ended, on March 21, the awards were announced, revealing that CyberBots was ranked second in the nation in the middle school division.

“I was really happy when I found out,” Team Capt. Pratham Rangwala told the Citizen. “And I think our whole team was too.”

The rest of the team members are Noah Bohn, William De Anda, Nathan Lee and Caden Luu, as well as Pratham’s twin brother, Priyam. CyberBots is coached by computer science teacher Ryan North.

CyberPatriot teams face two challenges during the national competition. In the first one, a team has a little over three hours to fix vulnerabilities on a network of simulated computers, and maintaining services in the face of virtual attacks from a team of cybersecurity professionals. The second challenge gives a team 90 minutes to build a virtual network and answer questions testing their cybersecurity knowledge.

Elk Grove High School mathematics teacher Sean McNally brought CyberPatriot to the Elk Grove Unified School District in 2011, and North began coaching teams a few years later.

North said the victory was a group effort, citing summer training at community colleges, collaboration with Franklin High School’s CyberPatriot program, and the support of McNally and other district employees.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition was conducted remotely, and CyberBots hasn’t met in person at all this season, a shift that North said came with both challenges and benefits.

The newer teams that North coaches had to take on the material for the first time in a remote environment. However, the remote training also opened new avenues for learning; CyberBots practiced this season with a high school team from Fullerton.

“And if it weren’t for this virtual world, we probably would not have been working with that Fullerton team,” North said. “And they were a huge help in us being prepared for nationals.”

Pratham said he and his team members now have practical knowledge to handle security issues on their personal computers.

“Everyone has learned how to make their system secure, so if their actual, real home computer gets infected with something, then they have the means and the knowledge to try and solve that,” Pratham explained.

Spease, who was elected to the Elk Grove City Council last year, has mentored local CyberPatriot programs. He is the president and CEO of a cybersecurity firm and he said that CyberPatriot competitors are primed to fill a huge industry need. Spease cited 2020 research from the cybersecurity training organization (ISC)² that showed the number of cybersecurity professionals that organizations need to protect their assets outstrips the number of available workers by 3.1 million worldwide.

“These kids are going to be in a great position … to enter a workforce that is needed right now,” he said.

Ultimately, Spease, North and Pratham agreed that CyberPatriot helps students, regardless of career goal, learn how to work together.

“I’ve certainly learned a lot about teamwork,” Pratham said. “You can’t do everything yourself.”