SHERIDAN —— The contest involved a race against time and teams in other states, and the participants knew exactly where they stood.
It was the final day of the national Girls Go CyberStart competition, and three Sheridan High School students — Ashley Doyle, Alicia Thoney and Kate Moran — competed in a room at Sheridan College against more than 100 groups around the country.
In their inaugural attempt last Wednesday through Friday, the team from Sheridan County School District 2 tied for 17th out of 120 schools. As the only squad from Wyoming to qualify for the three-day contest, each team member received $100 for finishing first in the state.
With live scoring updates, the pressure intensified but sharpened the students’ focus.
“I think it was fun,” Thoney said. “It made it more competitive.”
This month marked the second year of the cybersecurity competition designed to encourage high school girls to code and think about related careers. The lead-up to the national contest was several months in the making. It started in March when Gov. Mark Gordon — along with several governors in other states — released a letter encouraging young women to participate in Girls Go CyberStart.
Fourteen SHS students took part in the initial assessment. That first stage involved more than 10,000 high-schoolers in the U.S. and certain scores were needed to advance to the second phase. About 6,600 girls took part in that stage, and that number was winnowed down to the top 120 teams composed of four students that engaged in the three-day national competition.
Moran and Thoney both took AP computer science principles from and were excited to participate. One SHS student couldn’t compete last week due to prior commitments.
The competition included four levels of challenges varying in difficulty from easy to extreme. It was a “capture the flag” contest, meaning there were different aspects of the four levels. An array of aspects were involved, including coding, decryption, encryption, image analysis, web page inspection, memory dumps, file exchanges and packet captures.
The interactive college classroom aided their work. They had three TV screens connected to laptops they could work on that showed each other the progress being made. Team members split the challenges and sometimes worked together to solve a challenging query.
Thoney said it felt rewarding to complete a particularly difficult technical challenge.
“We finally got it and the energy in the room is like, ‘Yes, we get to cross another one off the board!’” Thoney said.
The questions last week differed from the initial assessments, so it took some time to adjust. However, placing in the top 20 represented a great start and one the students hope to improve on next year.
Moran said going in without extensive previous knowledge was difficult yet interesting. She also said computer science classes involve mostly individual work, so she appreciated working with others on the challenges.
Doyle recently graduated from SHS, Thoney will be a senior and Moran will be a junior, so they enjoyed getting to know each other and competing as a team.
“It was cool to put three different people on a team and still see how well we could work together toward a goal,” Thoney said.
Moran and Thoney said the contest didn’t feel like schoolwork and that it opened their eyes to different higher-level tasks and possibilities.
The students said they also learned a lot about cybersecurity throughout the process. Some of the challenges were daunting, but it was fun to learn something new.
The two of them enjoy computer science partially because it is a more recent topic.
“I think it’s better in the sense that you’re learning something new,” Thoney said. “You’ve been doing English, math and science since kindergarten, but this is a whole new spectrum of education. I just love it.”
Sheridan College computer science instructor Mark Thoney helped provide the testing equipment and location. He has noticed an increase in computer science interest locally, especially in the past two years.
Thoney thinks part of the reasoning is because students didn’t consider the subject previously due to lack of exposure. Now, there are instructors and professionals to turn to and students like Moran and Alicia Thoney who plan to study computer science in college. Moran aims to study computer science and mathematics, while Thoney plans to pursue a degree in computer science. Thoney has also encouraged many of her female friends to take computer science courses and expand the number of women in the field.
“I think we’re getting closer,” Thoney said. “… Especially with (Girls Go CyberStart competition), because then you can say to upcoming kids, ‘This is so much fun. You try it.’ That helps.”
The success in the first year could lead to similar occurrences in the future and encourage more women to follow in the footsteps of students like Thoney and Moran.