Thomas Jefferson team finished among leaders in national competition
By Stephanie Hacke
Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
There were many sleepless nights spent on the computer doing research, answering questions and hacking into computer systems.
They chatted over the computer, with headphones on, and at times, one of the three would fall asleep during the tense discussions.
It was a busy time of the year, with Advanced Placement exams and the SAT approaching that weekend.
Yet, their classmates joked: “It's OK, you don't have to study. You can always retake your SATs, but you can't redo this competition.”
Being one of the top schools in Carnegie Mellon University's “picoCTF” capture the flag “Toaster Wars” high school hacking competition was important to Thomas Jefferson High School juniors Tim Becker, 17; Christopher Ganas, 17; and Andrew Tindall, 16.
“It was probably one of the most depressing and exciting things in my life,” Ganas said, as the Thomas Jefferson team from Pennsylvania fiercely competed against top U.S. private technology schools.
Their motivation was simple: They wanted to show that a public high school from Pittsburgh could compete with the private institutions from across the country that focused specifically on this craft.
Oh, and they wanted to beat the other “TJ” — Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, based in Alexandria, Va. — that they often were confused with during the competition.
“I think we spent 10 straight days just watching the scoreboard,” Becker said.
The three Thomas Jefferson students competed with 2,100 high school teams from across the country in the Carnegie Mellon competition and came in third. They were the only team from Pennsylvania in the top three, high school computer and science teacher Frank Staffen said.
“It really is a unique experience,” Ganas said.
The third-place victory included a $2,000 award for Thomas Jefferson's computer science program, $1,000 to split among the three teammates, and textbooks for both the school and team members.
All three members of the Thomas Jefferson team have been interested in computers since at least middle school and already have completed Advanced Placement computer-science classes at the high school, the highest-level computer course offered.
Creating programs designed to have flashy screens and bright colors, though, isn't their thing. It's more about what's the screen: the formulas, the numbers, the theories and the instant feedback that a computer gives, they said. They enjoy the “big data,” exploiting software and mathematics and problem solving.
“It's the logic behind it that's kind of fascinating,” Ganas said. “You see something and you want to make it better.”
“I like the problem solving,” Becker said.
The three combined have created apps for Android system cell phones and hundreds of scripts.
Staffen asked the three if they were interested in the competition, because, he said, he thought it would challenge them.
The problems started out easy, they said, but progressively got harder.
“The first level, if you had any experience using a computer you could probably do this,” Becker said.
But the hardest questions took as long as 12 hours to answer.
“We'd work on it from right after school until you fell asleep, if you fell asleep,” Becker said.
The 10-day competition required the students to exploit cryptography and do reverse engineering, they said.
Explaining what that meant in laymen's terms was hard for the high schoolers.
“It's not written for human consumption,” Ganas said.
The students said they were told at the beginning of the competition that there were some problems that probably would not be solved by any of the teams.
Only three teams, including the one from Thomas Jefferson, solved all of the problems, they said. The other two teams, though, had faster times solving the problems than the TJ team and therefore took first and second place.
The second-place team was the “other Thomas Jefferson.”
Coming in at the top with prominent technology schools from across the country was encouraging for the Thomas Jefferson students, they said.
“We didn't need a special school to perform this well,” Ganas said.
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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