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Cyber Competitions Use Hands-on Experiences to Amp Up Career Path

Alex Kasten
By Alex Kasten
  • News |
  • Cybersecurity

Kelly Wilmeth, vice president of Military Operations at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), has a lot on her plate. Stateside Military Operations (SMO), which she oversees, not only represents one third of UMGC’s global military footprint but it is deeply enmeshed with one of the university’s signature programs: cybersecurity.

“The SMO is responsible for meeting education needs in physical locations across the United States, primarily on military installations, but also at civilian locations and regional centers in Maryland, which cater to large numbers of active-duty military personnel and veterans” Wilmeth explained. “Education surveys on bases consistently reflect a need for access to cybersecurity degree programs, which is right in our wheelhouse.

Military personnel seek out UMGC because of its award-winning cybersecurity programs, including its highly successful cybersecurity competition teams. To increase awareness of the teams, and to attract prospective students to UMGC’s cyber programs on the bases, SMO often hosts cyber competitions and other on-site events.

These hands-on events unfold in face-to-face environments on the military installations, drawing students, prospective students, alumni, instructors and employers. One goal of the gatherings is to help individuals understand the range of jobs available for those pursuing careers in cyber. Taking part in the competitions can also strengthen a resume.

“Employers are always looking for the skills that our students bring to the table,” Wilmeth noted.

Over the past three years, SMO has seen some of its greatest outreach success through events featuring Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions. A recent CTF event hosted by SMO at Langley Air Force Base and Naval Station Norfolk went a step further to offer unprecedented exposure to the Multi-Dimensional Applied Relevant System (MARS), a new virtual learning platform currently available only in graduate cybersecurity classes at UMGC.

The platform allows students and faculty to demonstrate applied and hands-on capabilities in cybersecurity.

“The MARS platform brings a lot of excitement to the programs that are using it,” said Jesse Varsalone, collegiate associate professor of cybersecurity technology and coach of the UMGC cyber competition team. “Using MARS for a cybersecurity competition proved to be a great success, both in terms of logistics and learning. The main advantage is that everything you need to succeed in the competition is built into the platform.”

CTF events help prepare students for careers in cybersecurity and the Oct. 27 MARS event was no different. The event attracted 21 active-duty service members, veterans, dependents and prospective students of all skill levels for a competition that included Linux- and Windows-specific problems focused on reverse engineering, password cracking and other coding challenges.

“This event demonstrated to students the positive impact that participating in a CTF competition can have on their resume and as a game changer with employers,” said Diane Topping, senior military education coordinator at UMGC and one of the event’s organizers.

“Watching our students so completely engaged during the CTF event confirmed the value of providing these types of hands-on learning opportunities,” said Wilmeth. “The student engagement with each other and across locations via Zoom, and Jesse Varsalone’s training and leadership throughout, produced a palpable energy in the classroom environment that was felt by all."

The use of streaming technology to connect students at two different CTF locations was also a first-of-its-kind for the SMO team, and the effort paid off.

“This was the most successful Capture the Flag competition in the event’s history in terms of the number of participants,” said event organizer Melanie Maree, assistant director for Hampton Roads Stateside Military Operations. “Our ability to connect multiple locations via Zoom helped us attract more people than ever before.”

Strategically, the SMO team would like to expand its CTF events.

“We will be identifying other locations where the SMO has a cybersecurity focus and where it can use its current staff to plan for and execute additional events,” Wilmeth said.