Kennedy High hackers place in national girls' cybersecurity competition

7 Iowa teams place in Top 50 of 2,600 teams

Kennedy High School students who competed in Girls Go CyberStart competition were Jamie Anderson (from left, top row), A
Kennedy High School students who competed in Girls Go CyberStart competition were Jamie Anderson (from left, top row), Abigail Pape and Ali Andersen, and (from left, bottom row) Callie Miller, Lacey Kruse and Rahma Elsheikh. Ashlynn Wilson is not pictured. (Courtesy Lorymar Vargas)

Intrigued by the rash of security breaches and hacked databases in recent years, some of the girls in Lorymar Vargas’ classes started asking questions.

The computer science and chemistry teacher at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School soon had a small group of students invested in cybersecurity skills — skills that, in the group’s second year, has earned them national recognition.

Kennedy’s team in June was one of seven in Iowa to place in the Top 50 of the national Girl Go CyberStart competition — a contest designed to boost girls’ interest in cybersecurity.

“They get to break into websites and databases — which are not real, but simulated — and do what we call ‘ethical hacking,’” Vargas said. “They’re trying to break in and find vulnerabilities so they can be fixed.

“It’s the same thing hackers do, but not with the purpose of damaging. It’s with the purposing of preventing that damage.”

Girls Go CyberStart awarded $500 scholarships to standout competitors as well, including Kennedy’s Jamie Anderson, according to its website.

Iowa City West High School also placed in the Top 50, and student Grace Shipley earned a scholarship.


Gov. Kim Reynolds highlighted the Iowa high school students’ wins in a news release Wednesday.

“Innovative young Iowans are thriving in national competitions like these which reaffirm the positive transformation taking place within our educational system,” Reynolds said in the release. “Programs like CyberStart support our students’ passion for STEM-related fields, putting them on a path toward cutting-edge careers.”

Vargas said she is proud of her students, who completed the contests’ puzzles online in their free time and taught each other advanced material.

“Girls are still getting this message that math is for boys,” Vargas said, adding all her students can compete in another competition in the fall. “We talk about computer science, and most of the faces you see are Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos — white men everywhere. When you don’t see yourself, you tend to think this is not for you.

“One of the things we do in my class is try to give examples of minorities and women in computer science.”

Other ranking schools in Iowa were Sioux City Career Academy, Central Campus High, Abraham Lincoln High, Valley High and Urbandale High, according to the release from the Governor’s Office.

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