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Assessment of Cybersecurity Competition Teams as Experiential Education Exercises

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Cooperative and Experiential Education Division Technical Session 4 - Innovating Engineering Education through Industry and Community Partnerships, Maker Spaces, Competitions, Research Initiatives, and Experiential Education

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Cooperative and Experiential Education

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Jeremy Straub North Dakota State University

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Jeremy Straub is the Associate Director of the NDSU Institute for Cyber Security Education and Research and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the North Dakota State University. He holds a Ph.D. in Scientific Computing, an M.S. and an M.B.A. and has published over 40 journal articles and over 120 full conference papers, in addition to making numerous other conference presentations. Straub’s research spans the gauntlet between technology, commercialization and technology policy. In particular, his research has recently focused on cybersecurity topics including intrusion detection and forensics, robotic command and control, aerospace command and 3D printing quality assurance. Straub is a member of Sigma Xi, the AAAS, the AIAA and several other technical societies, he has also served as a track or session chair for numerous conferences.

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This research paper considers the educational value of cybersecurity competition teams to their student participants. There several types of cybersecurity competitions including red team / blue team events, blue team events and capture the flag style events. In the first (red team / blue team) teams attack (red team) and defend against (blue team) the other team’s attacks in a direct team-to-team conflict environment. Blue team only events, such as the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, focus on preparing students to secure networks by using area security volunteers as the attackers with competitors focusing on keeping their systems, servers and network operational the longest. Finally, capture the flag events focus more on the attack side, but also generally involve problem solving. Examples of capture the flag events include the National Cyber League, the National Cyber Cup and the Mitre Corporation’s capture the flag event.

This paper focuses on assessing, quantitatively, the benefits enjoyed by students that participate on these teams. Each type of competition requires a different (albeit overlapping) skillset. As these competitions are available worldwide and can be participated in online, there are ample opportunities for involvement. It is also clear that they all have some relevance to skills that are valuable in the real world; however, the exact level of direct relevance varies by competition type and individual competitions’ design.

Participants gain educational value and learn from several sources. Their local-level training and preparation is a key source of learning. In some cases, competitions provide pre-competition training. The National Cyber League, for example, has a gymnasium that is open prior to the competition and walks players through how to solve various types of problems. Participants also learn while they are competing, by having to solve problems in a high pressure situation.

In addition to gaining core technical skills, participants also benefit in other areas. They gain teamwork skills in team competitions such as the Mitre capture the flag, the team-based collegiate cyber defense competition and the team portion of the National Cyber League. Students also gain experience and learn how to work well under pressure (critical for anyone in cybersecurity) and they gain leadership skills. Students who serve as team leaders also gain project management and communications skills.

To assess the efficacy of these competitions, a survey was performed that collected demographic data, details related to why students opted to participate and the benefits that they sought and attained via their participation. Additionally, the survey characterized their pre- and post-participation status with regards to several key metrics and students were also asked to indicate to what extent they attributed the gains that they reported to program participation. Questions were also asked about activities that students participated in and the outcomes achieved. This data was analyzed to identify contest and benefit correlation and demographic characteristics and benefit correlation.

The paper draws conclusions about the value of contest participation and then concludes with a discussion of planned future work. This includes a larger scale study and longitudinal tracking of current participant.

Straub, J. (2020, June), Assessment of Cybersecurity Competition Teams as Experiential Education Exercises Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34187

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