Cybersecurity students across the Northeast gathered on Champlain’s campus to “fight off” a team of professional hackers in a two-day cyber defense competition.
The annual Northeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (NECCDC) returned to its in-person format for the first time since 2019, selecting Champlain College to host this spring’s regional cybersecurity competition.
Ten teams of students gathered in Burlington from as far as New York City to challenge not only each other, but also industry professionals. Champlain’s team, consisting of students from the Division of Information Technology & Sciences (ITS), placed second in the weekend-long competition from March 18 to 20.
The competition is designed to simulate a real-world incident or threat that cybersecurity professionals might reasonably encounter in their work, with a new concept and theme for the simulation each year. This year’s theme was “The Hunt,” where students — collectively known as the Blue Team — relied on their analytic and investigative skills to locate and mitigate threats to their network. Students on each team worked separately as the “Blue Team,” fighting against the threat of cybersecurity professionals, the “Red Team.” The main objective for each team was to keep their network services running while also keeping management informed on developments and trying to uncover the origins of the threat.
Two veteran student competitors from Champlain College included Computer Networking & Cybersecurity majors Hayley Froio ’22 and William Atwood ’22. Atwood states the importance of teamwork and creating resources from what he was taught in class. “You kind of have to use your peers and your own resources to try and figure out how to make X happen and how do we get there? And, you know, that’s what we do in our classes here,” he said.
Students who are interested in cybersecurity can gain experience in their field and decide what they are interested in via hacking competitions.
“I’m very interested in penetration testing and looking at how small businesses or individuals can protect themselves, which is a very hard thing to do in this day and age, especially when larger organizations may not immediately or ever reveal that they have been compromised,” Froio said. “So being able to take your security into your own hands, as best as you can, is very important to me.”
If you’re curious what you personally can do to make yourself more cyber secure, we asked the experts. The answer was resounding, with students, professors, professionals, and alumni all in agreement: change your passwords, use a password manager, and always opt for two-factor authentication.
Hacking competitions like the NECCDC are valuable experiences that can help students pinpoint which parts of the cybersecurity field interest them most for a future career. Scott Stevens, Dean of the Division of Information Technology & Sciences, and Adam Goldstein, Executive Director of the Leahy Center for Digital Forensics & Cybersecurity and Computer Networking & Cybersecurity Program Director, also see hands-on competitions like this as a way for students to learn more concepts and skills that might not be compatible or possible within the confines of a class setting.
“It’s really hard in the classroom sometimes to simulate that battlefield and to be able to spend 16 hours, or whatever it is, pretty much under constant stress of what’s happening and having to respond quickly,” Goldstein said as coach of the Champlain team. “And most importantly, they work as a team and on the communication and collaboration skills they need in that stressful environment.”
Typically, Champlain’s team is composed of students majoring in various ITS programs, such as Computer Networking & Cybersecurity and Computer & Digital Forensics, but it’s not unheard of for students in other ITS-related majors to get involved.
“When I think about the early 2000s, even the ’90s, it was sort of a boring [field]. You were just maybe a network engineer. It wasn’t what it is today until it became information assurance and then cybersecurity, and then it became the front line of all sorts of battles going on around the world,” Stevens explained. “It really has turned into quite this new branch of the Department of Defense.”
Joe Eastman, an associate professor of Computer Networking & Cybersecurity at Champlain College, reprised his 2019 position as co-director for this year’s competition. In addition to special events like the competition, Eastman explained that students can also gain practical experience at the Leahy Center, which applies what they learn in the classroom to the bigger picture of their field. The Leahy Center allows students to work with internal and external clients in order to apply their knowledge to the professional world.
Meredith Kasper, a member of the Red Team for the NECCDC Competition and employee of Hurricane Labs — a company committed to offering security services to help individuals be cyber-secure and safe —believes that the most important trait for a future cybersecurity professional is “a willingness to learn and care about what they want to do on a day-to-day basis.”
She continued, “It is not glamorous. The work is definitely not boring, but there is a lot of work to be done, and you’re never truly done with all of your tasks.”
Several alumni returned to Champlain’s campus to attend and assist with the competition, including Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity double major Abigail Barr ’19 and Computer and Digital Forensics major Blake Larner ’19. Having participated in the NECCDC competition when they were students, they felt a personal duty to return and prepare Champlain students to be cybersecurity professionals.
Barr and Larner both work remotely for Palo Alto Networks Unit 42, a cybersecurity company that “delivers innovation to enable secure digital transformation,” according to their mission.
According to Barr, “The competition is an exaggeration of the real world, but it’s still real-world experience. My first job originally wanted me to participate in NECCDC to get this sort of hands-on experience. They wanted me to experience what it’s like to be directly involved in this incident.”
Larner agreed with Champlain’s influence on his ability to pursue his career.
“In all the jobs I’ve worked at, Champlain students stand out to people. My supervisors, my managers, they know about Champlain College. They know what to expect from people who come from Champlain,” Larner said. “Champlain gets you started hands-on looking at data, understanding what you’re working with, and getting involved with labs right away.”
Similarly, Barr explained, “A lot of the people that come into the cybersecurity field usually have a general information technology or information security degree, and they know the overview of what we’re trying to do, but they don’t know how to do it. That means more training for companies and more time teaching those people how to do their job.”
Barr feels that Champlain takes a different approach. “Champlain did a really good job having specific courses and areas that you are going to use in your everyday job.”
Want to learn more about cybersecurity? Check out our Computer Networking & Cybersecurity major.