GRAND FORKS -- A Grand Forks Red River High School team has won first place in the state in the Girls Go CyberStart U.S. national high school cybersecurity competition.

Teammates Alexis Crane, Nine Jang, Angelica Knudsen and Narrie Neubert competed against more than 360 other high school teams that qualified for the national championship this spring.

The championship was the final portion of a five-month, multistage contest that began in January when Gov. Doug Burgum announced the opening of the competition and encouraged North Dakota girls to participate, according to a Grand Forks Public Schools news release.

Participants demonstrated their abilities in hands-on hacking, forensics and cyber defensive skills by solving real-world cybersecurity problems. The top-scoring teams in the final round, both nationally and at the state level, competed for cash prizes for team members and their school.

“I am so proud of our girls,” said Paul Zettler, adviser of the RRHS program. "This past year was the first year the girls participated in the competition, and they set a goal of qualifying for the national competition.".

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“That was a lofty goal and, even with a pandemic and all the hurdles they faced, they not only qualified, but they were also the top team from North Dakota, (which is) even more impressive considering that every girl on the team is a sophomore. We look forward to more great things from these girls.”

More than 15,000 girls registered to participate in the program this year, with 1,540 qualifying for the national championship -- only 36% of schools make it that far, Zettler said.

The Girls Go CyberStart program allowed students to “slightly delve into the cybersecurity world in a fun and engaging manner,” Knudsen said. “I learned so much about cybersecurity through the program, from finding hidden web pages to deciphering texts and much more.”

In its first three years, more than 32,000 U.S. high school girls have participated in the program, and many have found a hidden talent for cybersecurity, according to Mandy Galante, director of the CyberStart program, which is designed to help fill the shortage of people with cybersecurity skills in the U.S.

Galante said the contestants faced several obstacles as they participated in the national championship, “especially during a pandemic when they were trying to collaborate virtually with team members, and just the frustration of not being together. But these talented girls stuck with it and demonstrated they have perseverance, one of the most important characteristics of a cybersecurity pro.”