Area high school students (from left) Mario Puente, Robert Flores, Clint Sierra and    Tommy Roberts look at raw data on a terminal in a computer class at San Antonio College last week as they prepare for the CyberPatriot III competition.

In a cyberworld, hackers are the enemy. But learning to think like one is a necessary skill for securing the computer systems that people use every day.

That’s what teams of kids are learning at various high schools around the Alamo City. The idea isn’t to teach the eager teens how to become the next generation of cybercriminals but the new cyberwarriors, individuals who will help secure the nation’s technological infrastructure. And many of these students are getting a jump-start into the industry through the national high school CyberPatriot competition.

In the San Antonio area, a half-dozen teams are working their way toward cybersecurity supremacy as they battle toward the CyberPatriot finals in National Harbor, Md., in March.

Now in its fourth year, the cybersecurity competition has grown to include nearly 1,100 teams from all over the nation. The teams are split into a service division, which includes JROTC andCivil Air Patrol students, and an open division for all other students.

There are four rounds, with the third round about to start next week for the service division and at the end of the month for the open division.

The number of teams still in the competition has been whittled down to 36 in each division. Of the seven service teams that made it to the third round from Texas, only one team, the JROTC team from MacArthur High School, is from San Antonio. In the open division, five teams in Texas made it to the third round. All of those teams are from the San Antonio area: ITSA Boerne, two ITSA New Braunfels teams, ITSA San Antonio and South West High School.

“I’m not too surprised at our success and the success of the other teams,” said Carlos Guerrero, the coach for the Boerne team. “There’s a level of excitement. The kids are excited, and they want to learn more.”

This is the first time Guerrero and his team have competed in the CyberPatriot event. TheBoerne High School teacher said that being in the competition has encouraged team members to want to continue learning about information security and other IT-related disciplines.

“When I explain to them the types of jobs that are out there, the students realize that some of these jobs are cool,” Guerrero said.

And sparking that interest is the main point of the competition, said Bernie Skoch, CyberPatriot commissioner.

“Kids are great consumers of this technology, but what we need to do is develop the passion,” Skoch said. “We have got to get young people here motivated. Every aspect of our economy is involved in technology. And we need to bring young people to that, because if we don’t, we lose our pre-eminence as the world’s leading economy.”

At South West High School, the team members there practices after hours in an attempt to secure their place as one of 12 teams headed to the finals. The teens consume numerous energy drinks while conducting research to prepare for the six-hour bout that awaits them in the third round.

For many of the students on the team, what they’ve accomplished so far has brought recognition to a school that mostly goes unnoticed.

“Our school is like the kid who gets picked last in kickball,” said Justin Rutten, a team alternate and senior at South West High School. “In a way, we’re making this school shine and we’re finally getting noticed.”

But these kids aren’t just trying to win a competition; they’re doing what they love. The teens don’t shy away from hours in front of the computer or reading information security manuals for fun.

Every student on the South West team has earned IT certifications and some already are working in the IT field.

Ricky Banda is one of those students. The senior, who was a member of the ITSA San Antonio team that won third place last year, already has earned three IT certifications, is working on a fourth and has a part-time job with an U.S. Air Force cyber unit.

For him, and for many of the other students, information technology and cybersecurity aren’t just subjects to learn, it’s who they are.

“I know what I want to do with my life,” Banda said. “I’ve gained a strong appreciation for information technology. It has become an art to me, a strong passion.”