Walk into Daniels Hall on a Sunday afternoon, and you’re likely to encounter a band of York High School cyber sleuths, hunting for computer bugs and working to protect vital information from attack.
Under the tutelage of Elmhurst College’s IT security expert, Dean Jensen, the students in the Elmhurst Computer Club are learning the fundamentals of cyber security. To develop their skills, the club competes against more than 1,200 high schools across the country in the National Youth Cyber Defense Competition, part of the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot Program. Last year the team placed No. 1 in Illinois and No. 3 in the regional competition, and just missed making the national round.
This year, two six-student Elmhurst teams participated in statewide competition at the end of January, placing first and second in the state. Both teams went on to compete in the regional round in February.
“These students are digital by nature—they’ve spent their lives on Skype and Xbox—they can pull the guts of a computer network apart and find the flaws,” said Jensen, director of infrastructure and web applications for the College’s Department of Information Services.
Cyber security is a burgeoning field, with demand growing rapidly for experts who can detect breaches and build defenses against hackers. The systems of companies and government agencies are increasingly at risk—last year’s targets included giant health insurer Anthem and Hong Kong toy manufacturer VTech.
In each six-hour Cyber Defense competition, students are positioned as newly hired IT professionals tasked with managing the network of a small company. Teams download representations of operating systems with flaws or cyber security vulnerabilities. They must find the flaws while keeping other critical systems, such as email, functioning. They may be asked to identify solutions, such as turning on a firewall or verifying that passwords are strong. Progress is recorded by a central scoring system.
As the Elmhurst Computer Club was getting established, students turned to Elmhurst College’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems and connected with Jensen, who also is a faculty member in the department. Working with Jensen has made an enormous difference, club members say—he runs practices nearly every Sunday, explains tricky topics, and sends games and practice exercises to the team.
“He puts a lot of thought and effort into teaching us,” said Molly O’Halloran, a York junior and one of the team founders.
O’Halloran serves as the tech expert for her parents and two older brothers. “They are always asking me to get rid of their computer viruses or fix other problems,” she said, adding that her aunt dropped off her laptop when she was visiting for Thanksgiving. She’s looking forward to the upcoming competitions.
“I enjoy the creativity required,” she said. “Sometimes it’s easy to get exasperated. You have to stay determined and find new ways to solve the problem.”
William Brigham, a York senior and founder of the club, agrees that the investigative work in the competitions is rewarding. In a typical contest it’s possible to rack up points early, but the final problems can be elusive. “We may spend two hours searching,” he said. “But when you finally crack it there’s a lot of satisfaction.”