Delaware Cyber Challenge tests skills of computer ‘whiz kids’

Peter VanBukirk, left, and Seamus Burke of the Darth Vader Team compete in the Cyber Challenge Boot Camp at Delaware State University on Friday.  (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Peter VanBukirk, left, and Seamus Burke of the Darth Vader Team compete in the Cyber Challenge Boot Camp at Delaware State University on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER –– The seventh Delaware-hosted U.S. Cyber Challenge drew 50 participants to Delaware State University last week ranging in age from 16 to 50 –– all looking to improve their skills in cyber security.

“It’s really about sharpening your computer skills,” said John Foss, 48, of Dover. “You may be at home thinking you’re really skilled with computers, but you come here and see there is so much you don’t know yet.”

The week-long conference concluded Friday with a competition where participants could apply the skills they learned throughout the week and the information with which they already came equipped.

The competition portion included a list of tasks accompanied by a series of questions.

“It’s not just as easy as hacking into a computer and finding a specific file,” organizer Jerrod Bates said. “All the questions have several layers so the competitors have to show that they are able to use a combination of skills to solve a problem.”

From left, Jesse Mancuso, Kevin Statham and Wesley Vinton, members of the General Grievous Team, compete in the Cyber Challenge Boot Camp at Delaware State University on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

From left, Jesse Mancuso, Kevin Statham and Wesley Vinton, members of the General Grievous Team, compete in the Cyber Challenge Boot Camp at Delaware State University on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

It was easily noticeable at the competition that almost every competitor was male, a clear representation of the gender makeup of the computer sciences field.

“It can be a little difficult sometimes,” DSU senior Michaela Barnett said. “There have been a few times where the guys didn’t want to work with me in class because they thought I didn’t know as much as them and would hold them back, but it’s just a stereotype. I can definitely keep up with these guys.”

Like Ms. Barnett, most the competitors are planning on following a career in computer science or cyber technology.

“For me, this is a second career,” Mr. Foss said –– he’s a junior in DSU’s computer science program. “I’m retired Air Force and was looking for something new and challenging to pursue.

“It’s also a way to better myself because you’re not working directly with other people, all the responsibility lies in your own hands.”

Due to the growing demand for cyber security specialists, organizers of the competition are searching for ways to engage school children to become more interested in computer science.

“It really needs to start at the middle school level,” said Dr. Marwan Rasamny, chairman of DSU’s Computer and Information Sciences Department. “By the time kids get into high school, most have an idea of what they want to do, and this is before they even know computer science is a choice for them.”

Luckily some students have early exposure to computer science through their parents.

Ms. Barnett and 16-year-old Christian Bates both learned about the profession from their parents who work in the field.

Chase Lucus, 17, of Ocala, Florida, is a member of the Boba Fett Team at the Cyber Challenge Boot Camp. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Chase Lucus, 17, of Ocala, Florida, is a member of the Boba Fett Team at the Cyber Challenge Boot Camp. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Well, my dad teaches it at Del Tech,” Christian said of his father, Mr. Bates. “So I started learning a lot from him, but going to this kind of thing, you gain more experience and can work with programs you haven’t used before.

“It will definitely help me find a job in this field later on.”

Christian, a student at Middletown High School, was the youngest in the competition.

He and his fellow competitors planning to pursue a career in computer science or cyber security, will have a leg up on their competition from attending an event like the U.S. Cyber Challenge when entering the workforce.

“We had a day this week focused on building resumes for the IT field,” Mr. Bates said. “It’s an ever-growing field with a lot of jobs opportunities, and jobs that you can make a good living off of.

“Employers look for not only a degree or certification, they look for experience which comes from conferences and competitions like this one.”

Much of the cyber security training can be done in a classroom through courses like DSU’s Ethical Hacking, but many options of learning at home have either limited access or include illegal activity.

“Here they have a legal, realistic simulation of how cyber security works and how to find weaknesses and fix those problems,” Mr. Bates said. “It’s a lot more complex than what a lot of courses have to offer students.”

The U.S. Cyber Security Challenge is also held annually in Illinois and Utah.

The conferences are sponsored by national organizations like the Center for Cyber Safety and Education, the Department of Homeland Security and the Association for Federal Information Resources Management.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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