Four eighth-graders from Bull Run Middle School in Gainesville tested their skills and knowledge of computer security last month in the National Cyber Defense Competition, which is sponsored by the Air Force Association. The Bull Run team placed 11th in a field of about 200 middle school teams from across the country.

Those four are among eight Bull Run students who are getting an introduction to the growing field of cyberdefense this year. The eighth-grade team and a sixth-grade team meet weekly with volunteer coaches to learn computer fundamentals and how to protect against cyberattacks.

The sixth-grade team did not participate in the national competition because of a scheduling conflict, faculty sponsor Katie Min said.

Daemon Morrell, who coaches the teams along with Jeremiah Sahlberg, said Bull Run’s cyberdefense program is an outgrowth of the school’s robotics teams, which he and Sahlberg also coach. When they learned that the National Cyber Defense Competition had been expanded to include middle school teams, after previously being offered only at the high school level, they decided to give it a try.

Before learning about cybersecurity, the students first had to learn the fundamentals of system and network administration, Sahlberg said, as well as different operating systems, such as Windows and Linux.

“You’re almost trying to teach them calculus when they haven’t been through algebra yet,” Morrell said.

Sahlberg said they spent one day a week covering such topics as user management, patching, open ports and malware, “so that when it came time for these competitions they could say, ‘Oh, I remember how to do that.’ And they take the action that is needed.”

The national competition was administered at schools across the country, Morrell said. After a series of practice and preliminary rounds, the Bull Run team moved on to the semifinals at Battlefield High School, where a dozen other teams were competing at the high school level, he said. The top three teams nationally from the high school and middle school levels advanced to the championship, which will be held next month.

The teams took on the role of IT administrators charged with protecting computers, Morrell said. Students received a list of problems they had to find and correct, such as users with wrong permissions, unauthorized software programs, or computers lacking firewalls, antivirus software or the latest software updates.

During the competition, the teams of students had to work for six hours without consulting their coaches.

“Once the clock starts, they’re completely on their own,” Sahlberg said. “There’s nothing we can do or say to help them in their problem-solving.”

The students said they found the experience fun and challenging.

“It was fun the first two hours,” said Brandon Morrell, 13, son of coach Daemon Morrell. “After, it was really stressful, because we couldn’t find anything and we started slowly gearing down.”

“The six hours were like a mental problem,” said Calvin Min, 13, who is sponsor Katie Min’s son. “If you couldn’t get past that, it really separates the teams from really good ones and just playing around.”

The experience also required the students to collaborate to solve the problems.

Daemon Morrell and Sahlberg work in the cybersecurity field. Daemon Morrell said that introducing the students to concepts of cyberdefense will give them a head start on “one of the top jobs in the country.”

“Getting students these kinds of skills earlier in life will greatly benefit them,” Morrell said. “So they’ll be prepared when they get through college and [look for] jobs.”

Barnes is a freelance writer.