Ripped from the headlines to train the cyber workforce of the future

From healthcare to ransomware, the next generation of cyber workers obtain genuine experience during the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

Like the long-running TV show Law & Order, scenarios for the annual National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition are “ripped from the headlines.”

The 2023 competition, won by Stanford University, focused on healthcare. The theme for the 2022 competition, won by the University of Central Florida, was ransomware.

“Each year, it’s really something that we’re really grappling with as cybersecurity defenders. And that’s what that’s one of things I love about the competition. It’s very topical. It’s very real world. And the NCCDC team does a great job of ensuring that it’s very relevant,” said Jon Check, the executive director of Cyber Protection Solutions for Raytheon, an RTX Business, which sponsors the competition. “We want to give the next generation of cyber defenders an experiential training that they would not get otherwise. That’s critical. It’s really not going to be something that they learned in school. By just being in these competitions, they get to a real world example that they will experience in the workplace. Granted, it’s a competition so there’s a little bit gamification, but a lot of the aspects of it really do apply, and so from our perspective, it’s critical that they participate in that ecosystem.”

And it’s not just the scenarios. The entire competition puts students in real-world situations where they have to brief a board of directors, stand up and defend networks and respond to business tasks all the while defending their networks and systems from attack.

Brande Mora, the director of external relations at National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, said these real-world scenarios make NCCDC different than a lot of competitions, which focus on capture the flag or king of the hill type of contests.

“The end goal here is not just to win, which is always nice, but it to get that real-world experience that can transfer easily into the next job,” said Michael Baggett, the manager of competition communications for the NCCDC. “That is part of why this competition is different, and maybe even exceptional.”

Baggett’s description of the contest as being exceptional is not necessarily hyperbole, at least for the students who participated in the NCCDC.

“I do think the realism of this is an experience you don’t get in the classroom. It’s very different than all the all the computer science classes I take, and to be able to get put in the setting and to really have everything on fire is like ‘good luck and have fun,’” said Glen Husman, a student at Stanford University and 2023 NCCDC first place team. “This isn’t I’m working on some algorithm and I need to turn it in a week. This is much different, and that lends itself to a very different set of skills than what you’ll see in the classroom. From the technical side, that’s really unique and special about these competitions, which try to emulate these applied settings.”

Stanford’s win in the 18th NCCDC competition was its first after coming in third place in 2020 and 2022. The competition featured more than 1,500 competitors from 178 collegiate teams across the U.S. California Polytechnic State University, Pomona and DePaul University placed second and third, respectively, during this year’s competition.

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