Tonight (Friday) a group of computer-savvy high-schoolers will bravely go where only college kids have gone before, up all night defending computer networks against hackers, crackers, and other attackers. Leanne Jacobson is with the Technology Association of Iowa, a trade group for Iowa’s tech industry.

They’ll begin at six tonight to assemble and then defend their networks. Iowa State University students have already successfully held such marathon sessions, and proceeded to win national recognition for their skills. The older students make up the attacking forces.

They’re going to consist of graduate students at Iowa State as well as some “closet hackers,” she says. On the side of the high-school network defenders will be some advisors offering help. Jacobson says technology companies have sort of “adopted” schools across the state, and have mentored the kids on how to construct and defend networks, using modules created by I-S-U. She says, “The kids should be in fine shape to really give the hackers a run for their money.”

Jacobson says while you might assume high-schoolers are even more computer-oriented than the college kids, there’s a surprising change in the number heading into computer-science studies, a trend that has educators and employers concerned. She says there’s a dropoff of students going into technology-related careers at universities, either because they aren’t aware of the careers available or because they figure all the jobs will go offshore within a decade. That’s not the case, she insists, so this competition’s a part of the strategy to link industry with the workers of tomorrow.

Officially, it’s I-S-U’s first “High School Cyber Defense Competition,” and organizers hope by next year it’ll expand to include regional competitions. Observers are welcome to come watch students from a dozen high schools build a fictional dot-com startup company in “Metropolitan, Iowa” and defend it for fifteen hours straight, at Building 2 of the I-S-U Research Park.