Monday, February 3, 2014

4 ATE Centers Prove Concept of National Cyber League


Posted by Madeline Patton at 4:00am.

With the completion of the first full season of the National Cyber League, the leaders of the four Advanced Technological Education cybersecurity centers who created the series of virtual competitions with George Washington University report they have attained proof of their concept.

The concept: students will pay a small fee to participate as individuals and teams in games that prepare them for industry certification exams. The next big step for the league will be getting employers to pay attention to the "scouting reports" that list how participants performed overall and on eight cybersecurity workplace competencies.

"It's exactly what industry wants—to be able to find students who have somehow been able to validate competencies around skills that industry has said they're looking for," said Casey W. O'Brien, director of theNational CyberWatch Center (CyberWatch) at Prince George's Community College in Maryland. The founders of the National Cyber League hope that employers will eventually recruit new technicians from the scouting reports.

CSSIA's Virtual Data Center is the virtual gymnasium for the National Cyber League's competitions. It has more than 200 lab exercises for faculty and students to access. It is also one of four cyber gyms that ATE centers make available to National Cyber League competitors to develop and practice their cybersecurity skills.

In addition to CyberWatch, the ATE Centers that founded the league are the National Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance (CSSIA) at Moraine Valley Community College; CyberWatch West at Whatcom Community College; Mid-Pacific Information and Communication Technologies (MPICT) at City College of San Francisco. The Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute (CSPRI) at The George Washington University is also a founder and conducts research on the league.

For years the leaders of the four ATE cybersecurity centers have been involved in various cybersecurity competitions. CSSIA and CyberWatch host the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regional events for the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. These contests, like many others available to students, are in-person team competitions with limited space. They build skills, but not in a systematic way with learning objectives as the National Cyber League does.

O'Brien said it was dissatisfaction with cybersecurity competitions as "just games" that prompted the ATE centers to work together to create the National Cyber League.
National Cyber League Competitions Prepare Students for Certification Exams

"We decided to create something different," he said. "The main way that the National Cyber League is different from every other competition out there is that we really see ourselves as a development league. We want to provide resources for faculty and students to develop knowledge and validate skills."

The National Science Foundation's Advanced Technological Education program provided $65,000 for a pilot season in fall 2012. This supplemental funding was in addition to the support the centers receive from NSF to develop curricula for technician education and related activities.

A second pilot season in spring 2013 was successful enough to encourage a first full season in fall of 2013. With proof that people will pay at least $20 to participate, which provides a small income stream to cover operating costs without NSF funding, the leaders are preparing for the next steps involved in scaling the league and validating with employers the competencies that the competitions test.

In addition to the 945 student registrants, about 200 educators participated in the league. About 750 players actually showed up online for the virtual competitions in the fall. Both the number of registrants and actual participants are unusually high for voluntary competitions that require college students to put some "skin" in the game.

Aside from the scouting report rankings of every player, other unique aspects of the National Cyber League are its cyber gymnasiums— the virtual learning environments at the four ATE centers—and the National Cyber League's learning objectives. The league's initial mission is to prepare students to take two of the most popular industry certification exams for entry-level cyber security technicians: the CompTIA Security+ and EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker exams.

The cyber gymnasiums were created by the four ATE centers as virtual learning environments for secondary schools, community colleges, and universities to access for classroom instruction. So while competitions grab students' attention, it is the ATE centers' up-to-date curricula, instructional materials, and professional development for faculty that provide the superstructure for students' workforce preparation.
Cyber Gyms Offer Critical Practice Space

CSSIA's Virtualization Data Center (VDC) serves as the secure virtual "gymnasium" for the National Cyber League's competitions. It has 200 lab exercises for faculty to teach the latest cybersecurity skills and for students to practice techniques to protect systems.

For the National Cyber League, the leaders of the four ATE centers developed exercises for students to practice the skills they will need to score well on the two industry exams and, more importantly, perform workplace tasks.

The value of having 24/7 access to the cyber gyms goes far beyond the benefits an ambitious basketball player might experience from practicing free throws and dribbling in a constantly open gym. Because of the nature of cybersecurity, the cyber gyms are essential, yet rare, safe spaces for student to learn and develop their skills.

"The problem with teaching these topics is that it's hard to set up a lab," said John Sands, CSSIA co-principal investigator.

Cybersecurity labs need to be separate from college networks to protect the colleges' data and systems. The thousands of vulnerabilities in different situations and the multiple operating systems on the market make it difficult for instructors working alone to keep up with the volume of material they would need to load into their systems. To keep up with hackers' changing strategies, cybersecurity students need up-to-date lessons, Sands pointed out.

Even as they collaborate on the National Cyber League, all four ATE centers continue to be involved in other cyber competitions. CSSIA hosts both the Illinois and The Midwest Regional Cyber Defense Competitions. Fifty community college and university teams from nine Midwest states participated in the 2013 Midwest Regional. CyberWatch hosts the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. It also developed the Maryland Digital Forensics Investigations Challenge.
Employers Serve as Judges at In-Person Competitions

Security professionals frequently serve as judges for these in-person, cybersecurity team competitions. The industry representatives also provide the educators with examples from authentic cases to make the competition scenarios more realistic. Their observations of students' tactics for fending off mock hacker assaults on computer systems also inform their hiring decisions.

"Recruitment is simple if you can demonstrate opportunities," said Erich Spengler, CSSIA principal investigator of the positive loop that attracts students and industry sponsors to many competitions.

The Midwest Regional Cyber Defense Competition, which CSSIA has managed since 2006, has a job fair on the first evening of the two-day competition. Spengler said, "Some students get jobs right at the job fair."

CSSIA was featured in a Science Nation video, Community College Cybersecurity Program Trains 21st Century Workforce,

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