Cyber team faces challenges of a 'bad day' in IT

November 17, 2021

A team of M State Cybersecurity students is in the midst of preparations for the upcoming state Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, an event where M State has competed every year since the first competition in 2005.

Team members recently participated in a virtual “Hivestorm” contest that’s intended to help ready them for the Feb. 5 CCDC event. M State student Laina Shew said she and teammates Jean Kapajika and Kate Lucero placed 98th out of 188 teams in Hivestorm, which she described as a four-hour cyber defense competition where students earn points for securing virtual machines.

In the CCDC, M State’s team – which includes students from Minnesota State University Moorhead – will compete virtually against two-year, four-year and graduate school students from Minnesota State institutions. There, the team will protect and support the IT operations of a fictional small business while a “red” team (hackers) attempts to infiltrate its network.

“Competitions like Hivestorm and CCDC are great opportunities for students not only to hone their technical skills, but to improve important non-technical skills such as teamwork, communication and the ability to prioritize tasks,” Kapajika said. “I feel more prepared for a job in the industry as a result (of these competitions). Employers highly value this kind of practical experience.”

M State’s cybersecurity team is coached by information technology instructors Janet Johnson and Tim Preuss. Winners at the state CCDC competition will advance to a regional event.

“We look at the competition as a learning experience that we as faculty aren’t able to bring into the classroom,” Johnson said. “Learning to work as a team, work against actual industry red team members and get feedback from industry professionals – students always learn from the experience.”

Preuss described the focus of the CCDC competition as time management, information security and teamwork.

“This is done by creating a bad day in information technology,” Preuss said. “The team must work together to secure systems as quickly as possible before an attacker exploits issues on any of the systems.

Challenges like these, Preuss said, are “nearly impossible to replicate as an assignment.”

“The value I see in these competitions is that you’re able to (take) what you’ve learned in your courses and really put them up against real world scenarios,” Shew said. “It makes a great talking point in a job interview, because most of the people in cybersecurity know about these competitions and may have even competed themselves.”

M State offers a 60-credit Associate of Applied Science degree and a 30-credit Certificate program in Cybersecurity on its Moorhead campus.