Carroll High computer whizzes compete in the Iowa Sate University-sponspored IT Olympics in Ames in April.
Carroll High computer whizzes compete in the Iowa Sate University-sponspored IT Olympics in Ames in April.
May 28, 2014

Nearly a dozen computer screens refresh, displaying rows of green boxes.

Five minutes later, the screens refresh again, and one green box flashes to red.

A high school student surges forward from his perch on the edge of a folding chair in his team's small, curtained-off base on the floor of the Hilton Garden Inn. He rapidly types a series of commands and symbols into a second open window on his screen, fortifying his firewalls and bringing the server back online.

This scenario was one of many that played out during the Iowa State University-sponsored IT Olympics competition in Ames during the final weekend of April. Nearly 20 students from Carroll High School and Kuemper Catholic High School joined more than 600 other participants from across the state, competing in cyber defense, game design, multimedia and robotics.

In the cyber-defense competition, Carroll High's Austin Jensen, Bryce Perrien, Caleb Horsley and Daric Teske joined forces with Kuemper Catholic's Troy Schulte, Ben Kenkel, Noah Schrad and Michael Lux to configure, build and defend a network of five servers from hackers - ISU students and IT professionals.

While defending against these attacks, the participants also had to handle anomalies - pop quiz questions or tasks from their clients, such as word or math puzzles - which served as both an opportunity to earn additional points and as a distraction.

"This is total real-world experience," said Curt Jensen, former Carroll Community School District technology coordinator and mentor to the CHS-KHS cyber-defense team. "Just about everybody's network system is being attacked almost daily" - often through email or websites hiding spyware that can reach into data files and user accounts.

The students start the year learning the basics - how to craft a strong password, what cyber doors lead to servers and how to lock them, and what tools can be used to monitor a system.

While some teams spent weeks building their servers, the Carroll-Kuemper team did not kick fully into gear until they reached the competition, arriving around 9 a.m. Saturday to create a domain and working until nearly 1 a.m. Sunday to finish configuring network defenses.

At various points throughout the day, an announcement over the loudspeaker tallied the number of hours students had spent facing at their computer - and recommended a quick break.

Placing 10th out of 32 teams, the CHS-KHS was able to keep all five of its servers running through the entire competition.

Carroll High's Ben Tidgren, Brent Van Erdewyk, Blake Toms and Brian Bowen competed in game design, huddled around their own table as they fed code into a series of programs to create a plants-versus-zombies platform. The game designers also faced a series of anomalies.

Kuemper Catholic's Reed Rawlings, Tim Sibbel, and Taylor Thomsen competed in the "Sumo Bots" robotics competition, programming a Lego Mindstorms NXT robot to try to disable, push, lift or flip its opponent robot out of a 3-foot circular sumo-wrestling ring. The team made it to the sweet 16, ending its run with 19 wins, nine losses and six ties.

Competing in multimedia were Kuemper Catholic's Kylie Anderson, Teryn Hilgenberg, and Allie Muhlbauer, who designed a marketing campaign to raise awareness and increase participation in the KHS art club.

Kelly Borchers, gifted and talented instructor in the Carroll Community School District, and Nancy Peterman, enriched learning teacher in the Kuemper Catholic System, served as advisers for the after-school tech clubs.

The IT Olympics is connected to STEM programming - focused on science, technology, engineering and math - specifically, HyperStream, which helps cover the costs of equipment for the program and even lodging for the competition, said Borchers. The goal of the program is to encourage exploration of information technology in a fun setting.

Participation in the competition doubled this year, up from about 300 people last year. Organizers anticipate continued growth, with a goal of 900 attendees next year, Borchers added.

Her Carroll students - all but Teske attending the competition for the first time - described the experience as "overwhelming," but hope to return next year, more-prepared and possibly tackling different divisions. Instead of game design, app creation will be a category in 2015.

Borchers hopes to incorporate coding into more of her classes in order to provide students with a background in multiple coding languages - though the Carroll students were able to utilize to learn, they were basically teaching themselves as they completed the competition, she said.

A second goal is to encourage more girls to get involved in technology fields - none of Carroll High's representatives were female this year, and the girl-boy ratio for the whole competition was only 1:10.