Capt. Sean Smith, right, deputy cyber chief for the Defensive Cyber Operations Element, talks with a student during the Pennsylvania National Guard Wi-Fighter Cyber Challenge at Penn State University March 16, 2022. (U.S. Army by Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Keeler).
Capt. Sean Smith, right, deputy cyber chief for the Defensive Cyber Operations Element, talks with a student during the Pennsylvania National Guard Wi-Fighter Cyber Challenge at Penn State University March 16, 2022. (U.S. Army by Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Keeler). (Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Keeler) VIEW ORIGINAL

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - More than 45 Penn State University students competed in a Pennsylvania National Guard Wi-Fighter Cyber Challenge event March 16.

The concept of the cyber challenges, which are conducted by the Pennsylvania National Guard’s Defensive Cyber Operations Element Team, is to build community members' understanding of ways to protect themselves and the agencies they work for. Soldiers from the DCOE built and developed the challenge to improve the skills and understanding of the individuals who participated.

“We built a Wi-Fighter hacker challenge in-house at our joint cyber training facility at Fort Indiantown Gap, and we take those on the road,” said Maj. Christine Pierce, Defensive Cyber Operations Element Team chief for the Pennsylvania Joint Force Headquarters. “Individuals that participate in the challenge gain a lot of cyber knowledge, with some technical skills required, of course.”

The DCOE team conducts the challenges regularly at colleges and government agencies, Pierce said.

“Really anyone can participate in them, and it gives opportunities for anyone to hack their way through different capture-the-flag cyber challenges,” said Pierce.

The challenge is built to cater to a variety of levels of cyber understanding, said Capt. Sean Smith, deputy cyber chief for the DCOE. Smith, a Penn State University alum, helped create the event and training.

“Some are brand new, and some have experience, and we try to make it so that you can get through the event at any skill level because you ‘up-skill’ as you do it,” said Smith. “And all the instructions and hints are built into it. The only difference is how quickly you can do it. So the very high skilled individuals get through it faster and use less hints. For the newer folks, they will need to watch YouTube videos or read articles to develop that foundational knowledge before they can forward.”

Using hints built into the challenge helps the participants, but they lower the max potential score. The participants are also provided links, videos and more to assist with learning and developing their skills.

“Events like this are absolutely important,” said Pierce. “Not only from the community outreach perspective, but the cyber team’s abilities to provide training and opportunities to the community. It also provides a chance for individuals to learn more about what jobs and units are available in the PA Guard.”

The Wi-Fighter challenges allow participants and others from the community to learn more about cyber defense operations and cyber specialist jobs in the Pennsylvania National Guard, Smith said. More than 30 students at the Penn State event indicated they were interested in finding out more about cyber positions in the Pennsylvania National Guard, he said.

The competition was a close match, with just five points separating winner Liam Geyer, a freshman at Penn State from Virginia Beach, Virginia, from the second-place finisher.

“Compared to other challenges like this one, I would say it was on par,” said Geyer, who is majoring in cybersecurity. “It definitely wasn’t super easy, and I definitely got stuck in parts. I would definitely participate in another event like this one because you pick up little skills that add to your book of things to do in the future. So, it is always fun to learn something.”

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