LIVERMORE -- An unsecured computer network is under cyberattack. Like a virtual cat-and-mouse game, hackers are logging into the system, probing around for open ports and trying to steal sensitive data.
Watching the action on their laptops, a group of high school students are mounting a defense -- detecting the attacker, blocking incoming traffic and patching holes in the network.
This onslaught is only a simulation, but for students at Sandia National Laboratories' Cyber Technologies Academy, the exercise could mean a real-world head start in the field of cybersecurity, where plenty of high-paying jobs await.
"We want to teach what our staff members are working on," explained Academy co-founder and instructor Jeremy Erickson. "If we can take some of the cutting-edge research that we're doing here at the labs and disseminate that to the next generation of potential cybersecurity researchers, that's a win-win."
The free classes, offered at the Livermore Valley Open Campus, are the brainchild of Sandia cybersecurity engineers Erickson and Steve Hurd. The duo started the academy after heading the Center for Cyber Defenders -- a lab summer internship -- and realizing the need for K-12 students to get better prepared for college computer science courses.
According to Erickson, the goal of the 10-week pilot program is teaching the ins and outs of the Linux operating system, as well as programming, networking and cyberdefense in a secure, closed system. There's no homework, no tests and no grades, just volunteer instructors looking over the students' shoulders every step of the way.
"Everything we teach is freely available online; there's no secret sauce," Erickson said. "We're just providing them with the opportunity for them to learn it in a really hands-on format from some of the lab's leading experts."
The classwork was developed last fall, and classes began in March. To drum up interest, instructors visited computer classes at Granada, Dublin, Foothill and Amador Valley high schools. About 70 students applied, requiring a fourth session to be added to meet demand.
With a wealth of computer security jobs available, instructor Craig Shannon said it's imperative students get an early exposure to the tools they need.
"When they get to college, this is what's used," Shannon said. "What I tell them is I want Linux to enable them, not hinder them."
The students come from varied backgrounds and experience levels; the only prerequisites are knowing how to type and having the motivation to pursue a career in computers.
Kenny Williams, a senior at Livermore's Granada High, is heading to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo for computer science. He runs his own websites and servers at home and took the class to explore Linux and cybersecurity.
Interested in coding and expanding his knowledge of networking, Amador Valley freshman Bryan Tor, 14, wanted Linux experience on his resume, thinking it would give him an advantage over other students his age.
"The instructors were able to explain it in such a way that I can leave here with a wealth of information," Tor said. "Plus, being able to hack into people's computers is really fun."
Asked if he was concerned his pupils would become hackers themselves, Erickson said there's no reason for the students to use their skills for evil.
"There's a very fine line between white hat and black hat, and that line is being authorized to do it," Erickson said. "Breaking into systems is fun, but it's more fun when you can do it and not have to worry about going to jail."
Erickson and Hurd are working on an expanded five-week summer session, expecting more than 200 students to apply. They'll also offer teacher training and are developing a curriculum so teachers can bring the lessons to their own schools through a "live CD" that can be used by any computer and handed out for free.
"You don't find people who know how to do this other than industry professionals and college professors," Erickson said. "We're trying to get more teachers to the point where they can answer questions the students might have, and just be a resource for this community."
Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore is offering a five-week Cyber Technologies Academy summer program for students and teachers. To apply or find out more, visit https://share.sandia.gov/cta.