Cyber Competitions in a Changing Landscape

Students and Coaches Get Creative  

It is the fall of the 2020-21 school year, and classes are back in session. It also means cyber competition season is here. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has students facing challenges they had thought or hoped would be over, and life would have returned to ‘normal’ whatever that was. Now, they face the “new normal,” with distance or at best, hybrid learning. When it comes to cyber competitions, these resilient students face highly competitive competitions with limited technology from home and significant difficulty working together in their teams.  

SynED’s Cyber-Guild team sought insights from seasoned and new coaches alike about their teams’ challenges and asked what they are doing to help their students cope and still expand their horizons. The insights shared bode well for the students of the creative coaches and communities that understand the importance of cybersecurity and its importance to their business.  

The survey was conducted in August of 2020 and focused on student readiness for this year’s cyber competition season. The results came in from 45 coaches across 17 states, representing over 1,300 students. 

Figure 1 below shows the technology students have access to from their homes. Of all the platforms shared, Chromebooks, most often supplied by the schools, dominates the platforms at 45% for all students captured in the survey. Although few students have no access to technology at home, they are often the most marginalized, and supplying them access should remain a high priority. 

Figure 1: Student Access to Technology 

We asked our survey participants to share the nationally available competitions that they most often chose to take part in. In alphabetic order, the top competitions were:  

•CyberPatriot,  

•General Capture-the-Flag (CTF) competitions 

•Girls Go CyberStart,  

•NCL (National Cyber League)  

•PicoCTF  

The majority competitions listed are web-based and allow students to compete with a Chromebook or even a smartphone. Competitions that allowing for the agile student and lightweight hardware footprint find higher participation than those that do not.  

“Since we have some students on Chromebooks, we will be focusing on competitions that are web-based.  I plan to focus on competitions like, Girls Go CyberStart, The CyberStart Game, and Capture the Flags created by me using the Virginia Cyber Range’s new CTF environment, CloudCTF.  These options also provide a web-based virtual machine for Linux and Wireshark challenges.”  

Ms. Kristi Rice, Spotsylvania High School 

Business & IT Teacher, FBLA Adviser, Cyber Knights Advisor 

The survey results as shown in Figure 2 below indicates that 51% of the students are unable to take part in some competitions due to hardware requirements. 

Full competition capability
Figure 2 – Full competition capability 

So, rather than admiring the problem, what can we do to help the students and their coaches? 

Some teachers are testing out the ability to remote login to school PCs, not only for competitions, but for access to software for digital media, computer science, and other courses. One of the challenges to this solution is the tight (albeit proper) controls schools have in place for their firewalls. This choice requires buy-in and support from the school’s IT department, which is already stressed and, firewalls can be tricky for some competitions even under ideal circumstances. 

Hosting images on platforms such as NetLabs and Practice Labs are other ways coaches are investigating, at least for practice. However, firsthand experience in the 2018 California Mayors Cyber Cup competition on NetLabs with many challenges that required heavy technical support. Not all districts can access hosting platforms or technical support to provide the necessary heavy support to competition groups when they are already taxed with current classroom conditions. 

“Several cyber competitions can be done virtually from a Chromebook or tablet, including National Cyber League. Other competitions that use virtual machines (VMs) means that competition MUST have a personal computer. If you have access and permission to use school computers, then you should be “good to go”. For other students, you will need a personal computer at home that is running either Windows or Linux and has a recommended 8 GB of RAM.  

Troy High School Cyber is practicing using VirtualBox, an open source application, to host our practice VMs. VirtualBox is free and can also run on MAC computers. However, VirtualBox is not an alternative for cyber competitions that use VMWare.” 

Allen Stubblefield, Cyber Defense Teacher and Coach 

Troy High School, Fullerton CA 

Is this the time we ask our community business leaders to step-up and supply refurbished equipment to the schools? How great would that be if even ten local companies supplied a few computers to their local teams!  

Some computer hardware providers currently have discounted hardware available. For example: 

Dell outlet computers – approximately $500 per machine 

STS Education – offers competition-ready equipment at $400 per machine 

TigerDirect – multiple machines 

Are there any companies that can donate hardware? In what way can we help our future cyber warriors and leaders? Is it time to extend the hand-up even to close the talent pipeline’s cybersecurity shortage? 

Let us know how you want to help. Contact us at https://cyber-guild.org/contact-us/.

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