IST students team up for National Cyber Analyst Challenge, advance to finals

Jennifer Cifelli
October 15, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This fall, five students from the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) are competing in the National Cyber Analyst Challenge (NCAC), a three-phase competition designed to support and inspire students from the nation’s top cyber programs. 

The students, Joe Williams, Will Kacsur, Ethan Bowen, Chris Eckert and Matt Frantz, are all members of IST’s Competitive Cyber Security Organization (CCSO), founded last year to “provide an opportunity for students wishing to experience hands-on security administration in a supportive environment,” said Williams, who is majoring in security and risk analysis (SRA). Since starting the club, Williams said they’ve learned a lot about the competitions they attend and the skills necessary to analyze and respond to the presented scenarios effectively.

The challenge, created and hosted by Temple University’s Institute for Business and Information Technology (IBIT) and powered by Lockheed Martin, began in August with the first phase, in which teams had to analyze data and solve a hypothetical cyber case.  According to NCAC organizers, the Penn State team’s entry, which was scored on technical quality, accuracy and presentation, “stood out from the rest and was rated very highly,” thus qualifying for the phase two and phase three finals. The team was awarded a prize of $15,000 from Lockheed Martin in support of its participation and success in the first phase.

“[In phase one] we were tasked with finding out how a network was compromised, what was compromised, who was compromised, and what was taken,” said Bowen. “It was very open-ended.”

Phases two and three, comprised of a full day of virtual training followed by a real-time practical challenge, will take place Nov. 5-7 in Washington, D.C. Teams moving forward into the finals have the chance to win up to $25,000 from Lockheed Martin.

To prepare for the finals, the CCSO team has employed a number of strategies, from breaking into groups to focus on specific skill sets, to researching past incident response competitions. Team members are confident that they will be well prepared for whatever the final challenge brings.

“As with the first phase, we won’t know what the scenario will be until the phase starts,” said Frantz, CCSO co-founder. “However, with the diverse skill set we have on this team, I’m sure that we will be able to handle whatever the situation may be.”

The activities presented by the NCAC are student-driven to provide individuals with real-time experience, said Nicklaus Giacobe, research associate and lecturer in the College of IST, who serves as one of the team’s faculty advisors along with Gerald Santoro, senior lecturer of IST and academic program coordinator of SRA.

“The club and these competitions are a great way for the students to apply the theoretical knowledge they get from the classroom,” Giacobe said. “However, they don't necessarily really learn these concepts as well as when they do them. So, in combination between classroom learning, practical experiences in internships, as well as hands-on practice in competitions like NCAC, we're able to help build the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.”

Eckert, a senior majoring in SRA and a founder of the CCSO club, agreed that competitions such as NCAC have been beneficial to his studies.

“The competitive environment allowed me to better understand my own experience and skills, while also learning new skills during the duration of my involvement,” Eckert said. “Also, much like the real world, sometimes you are thrown into a situation where you don’t know all the details of the problem you’re in, so you have to adapt and learn quickly. This was exactly how NCAC was — we didn’t know what to expect when we started, but after taking time and combing through the data, we were able to pull the pieces together.”

The NCAC competition appears to be achieving exactly what the organizers at Temple’s IBIT and Lockheed Martin anticipated, which is “enhancing the skills of the future workforce and inspire students to pursue careers in cybersecurity,” as well as offering the opportunity to engage with others who share their interests.

In the meantime, the student CCSO team is preparing for the remainder of the challenge. And although winning would be an enormous achievement, the students are reaping the benefit of their participation regardless.

“I feel that the skills gained through CCSO and participating in competitions [such as NCAC] makes me more marketable,” Frantz said. “I’m not solely relying on my GPA and ‘book smarts’ to land me the job, because I have something that a lot of other entry-level candidates don’t have — hands-on skill.”

You can follow the progress of Penn State’s NCAC team on Facebook, or on the team's website at http://sites.psu.edu/ccso/.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 20, 2015