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It's Not Child's Play for Those Honing Skills

Over the past several months, a group of UMUC cyber security students have had some extracurricular fun and games with their studies courtesy of the National Cyber League, known as the NCL. But it wasn't all child's play.

The 2015 fall season of cyber games, which concluded on December 18, kicked off in October with a mandatory preseason event that identified players with similar knowledge and skills so they could be placed in one of three brackets for competition:

  • Bronze: novice players with limited existing knowledge and skills
  • Silver: intermediate players with mid-level knowledge and skills
  • Gold: experienced players with the highest level of knowledge and skills
Scott Dinsmore, who earned his bachelor's degree in Cybersecurity from UMUC in August, competed in the silver bracket. "What motivated me [to take part] is my desire to get better at my chosen field of cyber security," he said. "I first participated with NCL in 2012, which is the first year they hosted the games. I've participated every year since."

The NCL, according to its website, is dedicated to developing a new generation of cyber security professionals through engaging, entertaining, measurable, and scalable learning. It distinguishes itself by aligning customized content in NCL gymnasiums with the NCL Games. As such, it provides an ongoing virtual training ground for collegiate students.

"It enables a student to be able to validate, to further develop, and to further enhance their cyber security skills," said Deneen Hernandez, an FBI forensics examiner who teaches digital analysis, cyber security, and digital forensics at UMUC. Hernandez coaches UMUC's NCL participants.

During the competitions, students are given challenges to diagnose and overcome using specific tools. "There's also an event where you actually capture the flag, similar to a type of war game," Hernandez said.

To help prepare for the contest, NCL provides virtual labs that teach the basics. In all, there are 39 labs that train in both offensive and defensive skills, ranging from ethical hacking labs to network security labs.

"The labs are like having a refresher course in cyber security. But sometimes we come across something in the labs that we [might] have forgotten, or it could be totally new. Those gems—the knowledge gained from the labs—are priceless," Dinsmore said.

On the day of the contest, participants have four hours to conquer a varied array of challenges, Dinsmore added. "Some of these can be difficult, but others are super simple to figure out."

His strategy for overcoming as many challenges as possible in the allotted time is to tackle the easier challenges first, then attack as many of the tough ones as time permits. "If you aren't careful, you could [burn] the entire four hours working on the tougher ones," he said. "But solving one of the tougher challenges is a very gratifying feeling."

When a contest is over, Dinsmore said he usually goes through the tougher challenges that he wasn't able to solve and keeps trying to figure them out—even though he can no longer add to his score. "It's all about learning at that point."