Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Students at Palos Verdes Peninsula High Show Their Cybersmarts

Justin Boisvert, a sophomore at Palos Verdes Peninsula High, is already an expert programmer who has interned for Google. Nick Entin, a junior, has created an iPhone app that acts as a beacon for skiers trapped in an avalanche.

Students at Palos Verdes Peninsula High Show Their Cybersmarts

Justin Boisvert, a sophomore at Palos Verdes Peninsula High, is already an expert programmer who has interned for Google.

Nick Entin, a junior, has created an iPhone app that acts as a beacon for skiers trapped in an avalanche.

Senior Andrew Zhang already has a job at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute near Torrance, where he writes software that helps doctors assess the health of their patients. (Because he is a student, the job pays minimum wage.)

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the computer-science based team on which they and several other Peninsula High students compete ranks among the finest of its kind in the United States. On Thursday, the team learned it is among just a dozen high schools – winnowed from a pool of 400 – that will square off in March for a final jamboree in Washington, D.C.

The game, created by the U.S. military, is called CyberPatriots, and essentially replicates real-life cybersecurity situations faced by computer administrators.

But at Peninsula High in Rolling Hills Estates, the team is just a part of an unusually robust science and technology program.

In October, U.S. News and World Report ranked the school No. 78 on a list of high schools in the United States for best math and science instruction.

Mitzi Cress, the school’s principal, attributes much of the success to one teacher, a Syrian war refugee named Hassan Twiet.

“The creativity he brings to our programs is just unbelievable,” she said. “If circumstances ever caused him to retire … the program would be in deep trouble.”

In addition to coaching the team – named CyberPanther in a nod to the school’s mascot – Twiet teaches two Web production classes, three computer science classes and five engineering courses. He also coaches the school’s robotics team, and is the adviser to four technology-related student clubs.

Knocking on the door

A resident of Anaheim, the 46-year-old Twiet landed his teaching job seven years ago by literally knocking on the door of then-Principal Kelly Johnson.

“I said, `I have something good to offer, on one condition: I want my kids to go here,”‘ Twiet remembers. “He looked me in the eye and says, `What do you have to offer?’ and I said: `computer (knowledge).”‘

Johnson took Twiet’s phone number, investigated his credentials and called him back to offer him two computer-science courses. He also allowed Twiet’s children to attend Peninsula High. Two have since graduated and now work as engineers; the other two aren’t yet in high school.

Twiet fled to the United States in 1982, after the infamous Hama massacre, in which up to 40,000 Syrians – and 17 members of his extended family – were killed by the government to quash a revolt by Sunni Muslims.

“There was airplane bombardment, tanks, you name it,” he said. “The city was total ruins.”

Twiet remembers fleeing on foot with his brother and father.

“My father and brother and I ended up in three different countries: my father in Saudi Arabia, my brother in Lebanon and I in the United States.”

Twiet was 17 years old and did not speak a word of English. After finishing high school at Cerritos High School, he attended Golden West College and then California State University, Fullerton, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in both math and computer science and a master of science degree in engineering.

A SMERT acronym

All schools love acronyms, and Peninsula High is no exception. The school prides itself on having come up with a science- and technology-based acronym long before schools across the nation started using the ubiquitous STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Peninsula’s beloved acronym tends to inspire gentle teasing: SMERT, which is short for science, math, engineering, robotics and technology. (Is it “smart” misspelled? Cousin to the Smurf?)

Twiet takes pains to make his SMERT classes applicable to the real world. For instance, while most high schools enlist a tech company to build and maintain their websites, Peninsula High assigns this task to Twiet’s Web-design students.

“Every bit of our website is kid-generated,” Cress said.

One of the site’s more sophisticated features is a “homework calculator.” To use it, students need only enter the classes they are thinking of taking, and they can see how many hours of weekly homework they’d be facing.

Twiet’s advanced computer science students are so advanced they’ve already completed the official Advanced Placement computer-science class. Their project for this semester is ambitious: to create a comprehensive database using info from Peninsula High students allowing administrators to better pinpoint which students are struggling in which areas.

“The whole purpose is, what’s the benefit for the school, and the students and their families and the community,” he said. “We’re looking at 99 percent (of Peninsula’s students) going to college; we’d like it to be 100 percent. Where is that 1 percent?”

Twiet acknowledges that his classes aren’t very diverse. About 95 percent of the students are male, the vast majority of them Asian.

But the captain of the CyberPanther team is a girl named Miolani Grenier.

“I have brothers, so I’m kind of used to it,” she said.

As for the CyberPanther team, in late March six team members will be treated to a trip to Maryland, with the nonprofit Air Force Association, the competition sponsor, covering all costs, including several nights at a nice hotel. For some of the students, it will be a familiar trip: the team also made it this far last year, placing seventh.

It’s safe to say the teammates will be too focused on defending virtual networks from virtual cyberthreats to enjoy many amenities.

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