Skip Brewer is the Computer Security Manager at the Elk Grove Unified School District, a position he took after several years in the IT industry. Given that experience, he was a little skeptical about cyber competitions when one of his teachers approached him about using a school computer lab to start a team.
“The first year I refused because I didn’t want kids on my network hacking,” Brewer said.
After seeing CyberPatriot in action, however, Brewer quickly realized that CyberPatriot was exactly the opposite of his original notion. He quickly signed on to help the district’s teams as a mentor and watched the program double in size.
Not only does Brewer serve as a coach and a mentor, but he also actively recruits other IT professionals to give back by becoming involved with cyber competitions in their areas.
Both coaches and mentors play integral roles in cyber competitions. Coaches serve as team leaders and provide both logistical and emotional support to the students. They do not need to have technical experience — that’s where mentors come in.
Mentors provide technical expertise about specifics aspects of the cyber competition, such as configuring accounts or securing systems. In other words, they worry about the technical details so coaches don’t have to.
Brewer said serving as a team’s sole mentor can be a substantial time commitment and require a broader set of expertise than one person typically has.
“I’ve been encouraging coaches to find multiple mentors who might come in once a month or once every few months,” Brewer said. “No one person is going to have all the expertise you need, and it opens up the pool of candidates to those who might not be available on a weekly basis.”
Brewer recently spoke about cyber competitions at the Educational Technology Professional Association conference, where he tried to dispel the myth that cyber competitions are all about hacking. Despite the success of CyberPatriot and other programs,
“I talked to people all week who have any involvement in technology and encouraged them to reach out and assist their schools who have cyber teams or want to start them,” Brewer said. “There’s still a misconception out there about what the program is. It’s not teaching kids how to hack; it’s quite the opposite.”
Brewer is also involved with efforts to make cyber competitions a full-fledged sport at the Elk Grove Unified School District. He believes that giving esports the same recognition as traditional sports will help build enthusiasm and increase participation.
Cindy Lascola, co-coordinator of the Design and Technology Academy (DATA) at Monterey Trail High School, met Brewer 20 years ago when he began visiting her classes to talk with students about how to stay safe online. He also serves as an adviser to 11th-grade DATA students and received DATA’s Partner of the Year Award.
Brewer approached Lascola about participating in CyberPatriot, and she quickly found that it would be a good fit for DATA students who were interested in engineering, computer science, architecture, and related fields.
“Skip is a wonderful mentor, speaker, coach and inspirational leader to our students,” Lascola said. “DATA Cyber is a model program thanks to Skip’s the coaching and leadership.”
He’s fortunate to have the support of Elk Grove’s administration, which allows him to spend one afternoon per week working with the CyberPatriot students. He put in his own time, too, but the dedicated time during the week makes being a mentor and a coach much easier to schedule.
“I really encourage leaders in other districts to make the investment with the kids,” Brewer said. “Helping kids learn this stuff and compete is making an investment in their education and their futures.”