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Competition Sponsored by Defense Agency Promotes Cybersecurity

By guest blogger Victoria O'Dea

Students across the country are being invited to compete in a hacking competition sponsored by an organization that is well-versed in cybersecurity innovations: the National Security Agency, one of the U.S. government's most secretive defense institutions.

Dubbed "Toaster Wars," the free, online competition—developed by student-run teams at Carnegie Mellon University and sponsored by the NSA—offers students a fun and legal way to get hands-on hacking experience.

Peter Chapman, one of the program's managers, said that the aims of the competition, which will run from April 26 to May 5, are twofold. It will give talented students a positive forum for recognition, and motivate them to explore the field of computer science, particularly as it pertains to cybersecurity—a field many high school students know nothing about.

"Toaster Wars" is what is known as a "capture the flag" competition, or a hacking competition that will test the creativity, technical skills, and problem-solving abilities of contestants as they go on the offensive, and try to hack into the website that Chapman and his team have set up.

Chapman explained that offensive-oriented hacking competitions are easier to organize than many other types of student contests: All students need to participate is a computer and an Internet connection, and the competitions are structured in a fun way that Chapman's team hopes will keep students engaged as they work through the challenges.

The initial sponsor for the competition was the NSA, a cryptologic intelligence agency that is part of the U.S. Department of Defense. The agency is responsible for code breaking, monitoring overseas communications, and protecting the U.S. from cyberattack.

A spokeswoman for the agency, Vanee Vines, said that the NSA is committed to preparing the next generation of cybersecurity experts.

"America increasingly needs professionals with highly technical cyber skills to help keep the country safe today—and to help the country meet future challenges and adapt with greater agility," Vines told Education Week in an email. "We need the best and brightest to help us out think and defeat our adversaries' new ideas. To that end, NSA wants young people to know about the importance of cutting edge careers in cyber security."

In 2001, the agency established the annual Cyber Defense Exercise, a competition that pits teams of cadets from each of the five U.S. service academies against security experts from within the Department of Defense. The high-intensity competition, which the press release describes as "the Superbowl for future cyber defenders," gives the cadets an opportunity to show off their skills.

Now the NSA is showing an interest in high school education.

Peter Chapman said that his team at Carnegie Mellon University—which competes in international hacking competitions at the professional level—became involved in this project after a conversation with officials from the NSA.

"It just kind of started out as an experiment," said Chapman.

That experiment has evolved into a full-fledged competition that will be open to middle school and high school students across the country. It is structured in a way that will appeal to both experienced hackers and first-timers who want to learn more about cyber-security.

"The first half is very much in the story of the game, you're discovering things and solving problems, the problems gradually increase in difficulty until you finish the story part and it opens up to a more traditional competition," said Chapman.

The game portion of the competition, shown in a preview on the competition website, is designed to be approachable for younger and less-experienced students.

"The idea is if you're a middle school gifted teacher you should feel satisfied if you get through the story part," Chapman explained.

However, there will be plenty of challenges in the second half of the competition, Chapman told Education Week. He said he hopes students will be self-driven to work through the challenges.

"You're going to see stuff you've never seen before and it's going to be OK. You can look it up. You can learn," said Chapman.

Though the NSA is sponsoring the competition, Chapman said his team is looking for more corporate sponsors so that they can provide prizes to the winning teams in the form of gadgets for students and grant money for teachers to put toward their schools' computer science program. In addition to the NSA, Microsoft, Intel, and other companies have offered their support to "Toaster Wars."

As of this week, just over 700 teams have registered for the competition. Chapman said that they will leave "Toaster Wars" online after the competition ends so that if a teacher wants to make a lesson out of the content or if a student wants to try it over the summer they will be able to do so.

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