Lewis Computer Science Students Win At National Cybersecurity Competition (and at learning)

The Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences (CaMS) at Lewis University proudly applauds the students of its Cyber Defense Group for winning the Department of Energy’s 2018 National Cyber Defense Competition. Computer Science majors Joey Casalino, Gabe Diaz DeLeon, Johnny Kegaly, Ryan Meeker, Brandon White, and Brian White beat out 28 other teams for the right to be called national champions. The team defended a simulated oil drilling system against attacks from an accomplished group of hackers while responding to service requests and dealing with assorted anomalies over nearly ten hours of heated competition.

Dr. Jason Perry, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, serves as faculty moderator of this student-created and student-led group, which also includes Cody Cosentino, Yesenia Gonzalez, Matt Ratacjczyk, Tyler Starkus, Ian Stickfort, and Dan Szuba. Together these students competed in three competitions this year: the Illinois Cyber Defense Competition in which they placed third, and the Iowa State National Cyber Defense Competition, in which they placed seventh. The Department could not be more proud of these students and what they have accomplished this year.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The success the CaMS Cyber Defense Group has achieved over the three years since it was created didn’t come overnight or as an accident. The way these students carry out their business provides lessons for all of us. Their teamwork, camaraderie, balance, and laser focus on learning as much as they possibly can on their own and from each other set them apart. Their story demonstrates rather clearly how to work collaboratively.

The group was the idea of Computer Science majors Steve Day and Brandon White. In 2015, Steve and Brandon wanted to create a group where students like them could share their hobby of setting up and defending computer servers and networks. They compiled a set of online resources on networking, Linux, server administration, and cyber security, and they invited other Lewis students to start attending meetings. At the meetings, Steve and Brandon led tutorials related to the links they had posted, and the attending students were able to learn the material through hands-on exercises. Some of the lessons reviewed material from the various networking and cybersecurity courses offered in the Computer Science program, others combined material from multiple courses using hands-on lab exercises, and others introduced new material specific to particular tools, appliances, and operating systems. The focus of the first year was to gather students who shared an interest in extending and applying their knowledge of networking, servers, and security. As with most student groups, meeting attendance for the Cyber Defense Group dwindled as the year continued, but a core group of interested students emerged that would carry the group into its second year.

During the Fall of the second year, the CaMS Cyber Defense Group continued to offer a balance of lecture-based and hands-on learning opportunities. It also began acquiring and configuring used equipment in the back of one of our classrooms. Some of the equipment was donated, and some of it was purchased using funds donated by the Department’s supporters. In fact, even today, all the equipment the group uses was made possible by donations, and all of its travel and contest expense are paid through donations. The generosity of our donors has played a key role in helping the group thrive.

In Spring 2016, the group shifted into high gear, working with the newly configured equipment to prepare for its first two cyber competitions. Its first event was the 2016 Illinois Cyber Defense Competition, in which it capably configured and protected a variety of networks and computer systems. For its second competition, the team traveled to Rochester, New York, to participate in the Networking and Systems Infrastructure Competition, where they placed fourth. The group finished the year competing at the Argonne Cyber Defense Competition, the first run of this year’s DOE National Cyber Defense Competition. At that competition, the Lewis CaMS group was one of the only teams to avoid being compromised by the hacker team, but they were plagued by poor documentation and didn’t do as well overall as they had wanted to. But the group remained focused on learning through these experiences. Shortly after the competitions wrapped up, the group began plotting ways to improve for the following year.

During Summer 2016, the Department purchased and acquired additional networking equipment and computers for the group to use. The new equipment enabled the group to set up a collection of virtual machines (VMs) that they could load to configure a variety of environments and services. This gave the members of the group opportunities to configure and secure a variety of computer systems. The new system of VMs also enabled the group to cross-train: while each member would become the expert on one piece of the enterprise, such as Linux server administration or firewall configuration, everyone got a chance to learn at least a little about each others’ areas of expertise. This training approach came in particularly handy during the 2017 Illinois Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, where the team’s firewall expert had to leave the competition due to an emergency. Despite this serious setback, the group was able to take Third Place at this state competition, since they could support each other to help compensate for the loss of a very valuable team member. The group also competed capably again at Rochester Networking and Systems Infrastructure Competition later that Spring.

At the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year, the Cyber Defense Group moved its training grounds from the back of a classroom to new, small but dedicated space they could call their own. They expanded their set of VMs to cover additional configuration and security scenarios, and they opened up outside access to members through a VPN so that members could hone their skills from anywhere. The group’s core members actively recruited new members and created a series of hands-on learning activities for themselves and for the newcomers. Dr. Perry made sure the group had the equipment and the resources they needed to host the exercises and strengthen their skills. When Spring semester started, the group transitioned to competition prep. Different subsets of the group participated and performed extremely well in this Spring’s three competitions, culminating, of course, in their national championship victory this past weekend.

The constant throughout these three years of the CaMS Cyber Defense Group has been its singular focus on learning. “The group exists and succeeds because, at the core, we all want to learn. Because that’s all we want to do, we share with and seek lessons from each other, so a lot of the ego stuff goes away,” said Ryan Meeker, who is now in his second year on the team. “You have to be willing to admit, ‘I suck at this’, and then do what it takes to get better at it,” added fellow second-year team member Brian White. Gabe Diaz DeLeon, also in his second year, emphasized the importance of training across areas of expertise by saying, “Everyone should master a skill, but everyone should know at least a little bit about everything.” And Ian Stickfort, a senior who joined the group this year, remarked that he got a lot out of the training exercises because “they correlated a lot with what I had to do for my computer science classes.” Remarkably, the group managed to devise training exercises that were both familiar and challenging, reinforcing and augmentative. And, more remarkably, because of their shared love for learning as much as they possibly could, they managed to keep the egos that so often accompany technical proficiency in a highly esoteric field in check.

And now, as a result, they are national champs.

The Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences is tremendously proud of the CaMS Cyber Defense Group for all it has accomplished over the past three years, including the pure and empowering approach to learning the group has used as its uniting force. Congratulations, and good luck on what is sure to be a bright future.

About Ray Klump

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *