Kitchener-Waterloo

Fergus high school's cyber security success good news for industry

For the third year in a row students from Centre Wellington District High School in Fergus will go to the national team competition for cyber security. Teens keen on online security is good news to people in the industry.

'We work really well together. We study hard. We practice,' senior Edward Noel says

The senior cyber security team from Centre Wellington District High School will be going to the national Cyber Titan competition in Ottawa in May. They are (back from left): Quentin Wolkensberg and Nicholas Robichaud (middle from left) Rachel Routly and Kyle Welsh, (front from left) Edward Noel and Arvid Kuitert. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Teens from Fergus are among the youngest cyber security experts in the country.

For the third year in a row, students from Centre Wellington District High School in Fergus will be competing against  teams from across the country in the international cyber security competition for high school students, Cyber Titan. 

The senior team ranked third in Canada and 44th in the world this year, a feat that didn't really surprise them.

"We work really well together. We study hard. We practice. Communication is a big part. And we just work really well together as a team. And we know our stuff," said Edward Noel.

Rachel Routly, who was on the all-female team called the Terabytches last year, is now on the mixed-gender senior team. She says all the team members are in the same grade and have classes together, which helps them mesh.

She adds, "it's good to prove that girls can do well when they're not only on a girls' team."

Edward Noel was on the senior team last year and says he's excited about the team's chances this year.

"This team is actually, like, passionate about cyber security," he said. "The passion combined with the teamwork and the mentality coming in, like, you know, I want to be the best in the world. It's, like, yeah, that's what gets you the win."

Get youth thinking about cyber security

It's that passion and drive to learn about cyber security that is also exciting to people in the industry who hope to one day recruit young minds.

Kathryn Hodge at the cyber security company eSentire in Waterloo says their firm often focuses on university and college students, trying to enticing them into a career in the field. But nurturing tech interest in high schoolers plants a seed in students' minds.

It's why they take part in events like Take Your Kids to Work Day. This year Grade 9 students worked on an encryption algorithm called Cipher, as well as code cracking.

"They hear a lot of stuff in the news. They understand that there's a lot of risk and there's a lot of safety issues with security," she said.

"We want to make that real for them — get them really excited because we want them to go home and start thinking about what college you might go to, what university you might go to and how do I get into cybersecurity."

Kathryn Hodge is the head of people at eSentire. She says it's important to get young people interested in cyber security at an early age. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

From tractors to fridges

Inspiring young people in rural areas is important, too. The Fergus high school holds a "Drive Your Tractor to School" day each spring. Rob Martin, vice president of security operations at eSentire, points out today's tractors are filled with technology that uses the internet and Global Positioning Satellites.

"We need to protect that space as well," he said. "It's illuminating that path for people to understand, hey, it's more than just your cellphone. It's more than just your laptop. It's everything that's talking to all the other things and it gets right into things like farm equipment. Your refrigerator can talk to the internet."

Many of the current jobs at cyber security firms didn't exist a decade ago, Martin said. And the problems the company is encountering aren't getting easier — cyber security threats are growing and becoming more difficult to handle.

"We need to continue to grow the skill set at an early stage to identify people who are adept at critical thinking and understanding even varied fields beyond the technology field, of human psychology and how a bad actor thinks ... and what is their mindset when they're looking for someone to victimize," he said. 

The all-female team Terabytches formed again this year and it's made up of (from left) Serena Polak, Alexandra Clark, Emily Younghans, Emma Hammond and Louise Turner. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

'And you're from where?'

When looking at the Canadian leader board for Cyber Titan, teams come from major cities such as  Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton.

Tech teacher and the team adviser Timothy King says people do raise eyebrows when he says they're from Fergus.

"Everybody else basically comes from a provincial capital or something and then there's us and they're like, 'And you're from where?'" he said. "I think there is a part of me that really likes being an underdog though."

Girls teams excel 

Last year, the Terabytches were seen as the underdogs as they went into nationals. This year, they were the top female team in Canada and exceeded their scores from last year. They just missed returning to nationals.

Alexandra Clark says she's proud they've inspired others.

"I'm a little disappointed that there's more [females] because we have more to go up against but I'm really proud that we were able to bring some more girls into this field," she said.

Grade 9 student Tessa Routly started thinking about cyber security thanks to her sister Rachel, who is on the senior team.

While her sister was a big factor in her joining the junior team, Tessa Routly says she's also always been interested in computers. And she's excited to keep trying again next year.

"I really loved it. It was so much fun," she said.

Emily Younghans says the increased interest — and competition — means they're pushed to do better. 

"This way people aren't only going to look at when you qualify as a girls team and be like, oh, it's only because of your gender. Because it's really not," she said.

Centre Wellington District High School had two junior teams this year. Some of the members included (from left) Matteo Polak, co-op student Wesley Munn, Tessa Routly and Maximilian King. King is part of the team Ladz, which finished better than last year's scores, while Polak and Routly are part of Altron, which nearly made it to nationals this year. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Listen to the piece that aired on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition:

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