Firebird Airmen cultivate next generation of cyber professionals

  • Published
  • By Matthew McGovern
Airmen from the 352d Cyberspace Operations Squadron “Firebirds” grow and mentor Aiea High School students into tomorrow’s cyber warriors.  
For more than two years, the 352d COS partnership with Aiea High School continues to provide a cybersecurity program for students and Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets.

“We take great pride in knowing that we are building the readiness of our nation by mentoring these students, whether they join the Air Force as an officer, enlisted, civilian or find themselves on the commercial side of cybersecurity,” said Lt. Col. Domenic Magazu, 352d COS commander. “We hope to cultivate an environment of curiosity within the computer science and cyber domain.”

The cybersecurity program consists of basic and advance level five-day cyber camps, a five-month detailed training plan with volunteers from the Army, Navy and Air Force, and technical mentorship.

To execute the curriculum, the 352d COS Airmen work with the Air and Space Force Association and the Hawaii Department of Education.  

 “Our planning process builds a foundation for events,” said Master Sgt. Brandon Kauffman, 352d COS JROTC cyber program lead. “We’ve developed a program that excites students about STEM career opportunities, teaches cyber defense skills through hands-on instruction and activities, and prepares them for the CyberPatriot competition which leads to team success.”

The CyberPatriot competition is the world’s largest cybersecurity competition run by the Air and Space Forces Association.

“We’ve seen an increase in CyberPatriot teams each year, and we’ve seen them all perform exceptionally well, including the school's first all-female team placing in the Platinum Tier, the top 30% of all the teams,” said Magazu.

In their first year of the competition, the school had three teams with one finishing at the gold tier level and two teams finishing at the platinum tier level or top 30% of 1,400 teams.

In 2022, four teams competed with one team coming in second place in the Hawaii All Service Division gold tier and three teams achieving platinum, including the returning all-female team, and one team making third place overall in the Hawaii All Service Division.

For the upcoming 2023 CyberPatriot competition, the school is projecting to have five teams.

So far, 24 JROTC cadets and 67 high school students went through the 352d COS cybersecurity program with 32 Firebird Airmen as instructors.

Kyle Kam, a May 2023 Aiea High School graduate, participated in the cybersecurity program for two years.

“Being a part of JROTC and CyberPatriot competitions helped me to succeed and develop new skills in relation to tech and all things cyber,” said Kam, a former JROTC cadet and CyberPatriot team captain. “CyberPatriot is a wonderful entry into the field of cybersecurity; it’s interesting and fun to learn for beginners, who aren’t familiar with anything cyber-related, and it offers students a look into cyber-related careers.”

Inspired by the program, this year Kam is majoring in Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

Rayden Phanthavong-Corpuz, another former cybersecurity student, was also inspired to enlist in the Air Force.

“The CyberPatriot competition had a positive effect on my decision to join the Air Force,” said Phanthavong-Corpuz, a CyberPatriot team captain. “Once I got involved, I was interested and I learned the Air Force has many jobs that can be easily applied to many civilian jobs.”

Since the Firebird Airmen started mentorship, Aiea High School JROTC increased by 24% and 38% of JROTC cadets have enlisted.

“Joining JROTC not only allows you to explore new things and meet other like-minded students, but it’s also a doorway into fun extracurricular activities on top of learning more about the military branch your local JROTC is a part of,” said Kam. “The JROTC program also taught me how to build my leadership skills when it came to team-based things and helped me develop my character in a positive way as I became more assertive and learned to set an example of being a leader as an upperclassman.”

The 352d COS created a program that not only impacts the local community, but the future of the U.S. national security advantage.  

Recruiting and retaining top talent in 16th Air Force (Air Force Cyber) are a priority and cybersecurity programs like this help build skillsets for prospective cybersecurity leaders.

“Find your passion, and bring it forward,” said Lt. Gen. Kevin Kennedy, 16th Air Force commander, recently to students at a CyberPatriot competition in San Antonio, Texas. “No matter the career you choose, the skills that you've developed here: critical thinking, problem solving, the ability to work within a team, and most importantly, self-discipline to get it done toward an objective and win. They will carry you forward, anywhere you want to go in your careers.”

Editor’s note: The mention of the nonprofit organizations, Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association and Air and Space Force Association, does not constitute endorsement of affiliation by 16th Air Force or the U.S. Air Force.