NORTH CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The Palmetto Cyber Defense Competition (PCDC) is opening doors for students across the state to learn and develop technical skills for STEM careers.
It's the fifth year for the competition and for the first time this year the program is reaching students not only in high school and colleges across the state, but also middle schools.
The PCDC is lead by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (Sweeney) Atlantic, in collaboration with the South Carolina Lowcountry Chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association and SC Cyber.
Gabriel Martin is a senior at Ashley Ridge High School. She's involved in the school's ROTC program.
"One of the things they really push is joining a team," Martin said
That's what lead her to the competition. Sports wasn't her thing so she joined her school's Cyber Team.
"I always liked messing around on my computer," Martin said.
This is her third year at the Palmetto Cyber Defense Competition. Top high schools and college teams qualify to compete. The purpose of it all is to get students excited about careers in STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and math. It's also to teach them the technical skills necessary for the workforce.
Jeff Sweeney is the director of the competition and SPAWAR supervisor.
"Everyday there's news highlights about systems being hacked, or it's the election or whatever, and we need lots of cyber security professionals to protect our companies, our financial systems our military," Sweeney said.
In the competition students have to run a business network, reconfigure it and add services all while defending against real-time hackers composed of SPAWAR and industry professionals.
"You learn how to juggle many things at once as well, it's not just the computer skills it's skills that you can apply in anything," Martin said.
She aspires to become a teacher, but she's considering minoring in a subject cyber security related.
Professionals also gave about 90 middle school student a look into the industry through learning sessions.
Esmee Throckmorton is a 7th grader at Buist Academy.
"I learned how to deconstruct and construct a computer and I thought that was really fascinating," Throckmorton said. "I didn't take cyber security so seriously because I didn't realize you have to do so much to protect yourself once you're on the internet you have to realize so much."
Kadelyn Steed is also a 7th grader at Buist Academy who says she has a new perspective after learning about cyber defense and security.
"Everyone takes the internet for granted because they think their precautions aren't easy for hackers to get through, but it's actually very easy and they have to take thorough precautions," Steed said.
Sweeney says the kids are very passionate.
"We are trying to expose them as much as possible," Sweeney said.
Gabriel says she amazed by what she can do to secure her network.
"You look back at it and you're going to be like wow, I actually did all that," Martin said. "I did this, my team and me did this."
SPAWAR and Corporate partners mentor students leading up the competition.
There are also Cyber Forensics Challenges that take place throughout the weekend. High schools compete on Saturday and college students compete on Sunday. Monday will be a training exercise comprised of government and industry teams.
The high schools competing are awarded a technology grant, a laptop computer and a programmable drone.
Sweeney says there's been an increase in cyber teams competing statewide since the Palmetto Cyber Defense Competition was created. The qualifying competitions started with about 13 teams and now there's about 100.