SHELTON — A team of Shelton High School students has emerged victorious as the top team in Connecticut in the Girls Go CyberStart U.S. national high school cybersecurity competition held last month.

Team Hackstreet Humans — made up of 11th grader Meleny Lopez, 10th graders Ashley Jacob and Ria Dalvi, and ninth grader Mary Pavliouk — ranked first in Connecticut and then battled more than 360 other high school teams to place 66th the national championship.

The national finals were held May 20 and 21, and participants had to demonstrate that they could master hands-on hacking, forensics and cyber defensive skills by solving real-world cybersecurity problems.

And since it was during the pandemic, they worked from their individual computers while staying at home.

“I was very impressed with how they worked together as a team even though they could not meet in person,” said SHS math teacher and team adviser Denise Norse.

“They did all of this while also juggling regular school work and AP tests,” she said. “In the end, they had completed about 44 percent of the challenges that were available and ended up coming in first in the state” before tackling the next level of challenges on the national competition.

“This is such an amazing accomplishment by our students, especially during distance learning,” said interim SHS Principal Kathy Riddle. “I am impressed at their willingness to take on this challenge on their own and be so successful is such an incredible feat. We are so proud of these girls.”

Norse said two of the students had worked on the challenge last year, but, for the other two students, it was their first time working on a project like what they faced.

“I’m very excited for how the team will do next year when we can hopefully work together and recruit more members,” said Norse. “Now that these girls have competed at this level, they know what to expect and how to help new students solve similar challenges.

“It’s been a great overall experience,” added Norse, “and I’m hopeful that it will encourage more girls to explore opportunities in the computer science field.”

Norse said the team consisted of 17 students, up from five last year. The team started working on the competition in January, said Norse, when the girls tried some sample challenges in the “Assess” round. There are 14 challenges, from Caesar ciphers, Python and use of the “inspect” feature on websites to find hidden “flags.”

“The great thing about this program is that the girls don’t need to have a computer science background to be on the team,” said Norse. “They work together, to Google for suggestions and to get help on the first round. Once the girls start figuring out some of the challenges on their own, they really get into it.”

Norse said the team needs to complete five of the initial challenges to make it to the “Game” round.

In the wake of the pandemic, the Girls Go CyberStart competition was extended, and organizers allowed teams with one girl reaching the sixth level of the game to advance to the National Championship round, called “Compete.” Jacob, who had competed last year, was able to get to the sixth level, and SHS advanced.

“I chose the four girls who had completed the most levels in the ‘Game’ round as our team, and all of them agreed to participate,” said Norse.

The girls had two days to access the challenges picked for the competition and to complete as many as possible in the allotted time.

“I could cheer them on, and see the challenges myself, but could not help them,” said Norse.

In its first three years, more than 32,000 U.S high school girls have participated in Girls Go CyberStart, which was designed to help fill the shortage of people with cybersecurity skills in the United States.

More than 15,000 girls registered to participate in the program this year, with 1,540 performing so highly that they qualified for the national championship. Being selected for the championship was a significant accomplishment, as only 36 percent of schools made it that far, Norse said.

The top-scoring teams in the final round, both nationally and per state, were competing for cash prizes as high as $400 per team member and $250 for their school.

“It’s important to acknowledge the hurdles many of the girls faced to play 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,” said Mandy Galante, CyberStart program director. “But these talented girls stuck with it and demonstrated they have perseverance, one of the most important characteristics of a cybersecurity pro.”

Girls Go CyberStart is a national cybersecurity program designed specifically for high school girls to encourage more females to consider careers in cybersecurity. Girls need to be at least 13 years old and in grades 9, 10, 11 or 12 to qualify. There are three stages to the program: CyberStart Assess, CyberStart Game and the National Championship for Girls Go CyberStart.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the team was also national champions.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com