The cybersecurity classroom at Spotsylvania High School was quiet except for the click of computer mice.

On one computer screen, junior Melia Smith was comparing an innocuous-looking website with its underlying lines of HTML code, looking for hidden bugs.

On another, junior Lauren Keesecker was looking for the right cipher to decrypt a line of code.

On a third, senior Rachel Detore was scanning an image for signs of steganography—the process of hiding a file, video or image within another file, video or image.

The girls and their three other teammates were participating in the national championship round of Girls Go CyberStart 2019, a cybersecurity competition designed to empower girls to explore careers in computer science and cybersecurity.

The team from Spotsylvania High School was one of four Virginia teams invited to participate in the final round, which was held last week.

The other Virginia teams came from Langley High School in Fairfax County, Flint Hill—a private high school in Northern Virginia—and Bridging Communities, a Governor’s STEM Academy in New Kent County.

Only 120 schools nationwide were selected to compete in the final round—CyberStart Compete—said Kristi Rice, cybersecurity teacher at Spotsylvania High School and the team’s advisor. Spotsylvania ended up finishing 42nd in the nation.

CyberStart Compete is an online Capture the Flag competition with 56 challenges to complete. The challenges range from cryptography to debugging Python—a programming language—to website hacking.

The girls all took cybersecurity or computer science classes this past year and were part of Spotsylvania High School’s cyber club, the Cyber Knights.

“These six girls were all key to recruiting other girls to the club,” Rice said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities in the cybersecurity field are expected to grow by 28 percent between 2016 and 2026—four times the rate of growth for all occupations.

“[Cybersecurity] is really about protecting our way of life these days,” Rice said. “We’re known as ‘white hat hackers.’ “

To begin meeting the demand for these skills, Spotsylvania County Public Schools offered cybersecurity classes for the first time this past year.

Rice said male students still outnumber female students, 75 to 25 percent.

Elizabeth Lamirata, a rising junior, said she’s been interested in coding and computer science since she joined a Girls Who Code club at age 10, but she still hears society giving her the message that this is a field for men.

“Women in science and tech fields are being told, ‘No, you can’t,’ ” she said.

Lamirata said she does what she can to send a different message.

“I have a bunch of younger cousins and I try to get them excited about coding,” she said.

As a black female student, sophomore Arica Willis said she feels extra pressure to fight against stereotypes.

“Because I’m a different color, I feel like I have to try even harder,” she said. “We just have to prove them wrong.”

Rice said the girls have already worked really hard.

“They’re here because of their determination to do it,” she said.

On May 31, Gov. Ralph Northam recognized Spotsylvania High School for being the high school with the highest number of students—108—participating in the CyberStart competition. The school received a $1,000 gift card to Amazon from the Sans Institute, a cybersecurity training company that sponsors Girls Go CyberStart.

North Stafford High School received a $750 prize for 54 participants, the second-highest total, and Riverbend High School in Spotsylvania received $500 for 50 participants.

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Adele Uphaus-Conner: 540/735-1973 auphaus@freelancestar.com @flsadele