Today’s college kids grew up on SuperMario and World of Warcraft. First Class Cadet Nathan Hart, a 2009 graduate of Champlin Park
High School, can count himself among them; however, the kind of computer games he plays now have much broader implications.
A senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy and captain of their Cyber Competition Team, Hart spends several hours a week putting his computer skills to use not only for competitions but to further his education as a computer science major.
“The things we’re learning are directly applicable to the real world,” said Hart. “[This] will directly help me in the future to help secure this nation’s network.”
The team is comprised of 16 cadets who compete in both cyber defense and capture the flag style competitions. Competitions can include teams from undergraduate and graduate institutions as well teams from professional independent security firms.
“We compete against some colleges but unlike other college activities such as forensics or mock trial, we also compete against graduate students and computer security professionals from around the world,” said Dr. Martin Carlisle, director of the Academy Center for Cyberspace Research and the team’s coach. “It is very high level competition.”
Hart spearheaded the development of the team in his sophomore year at the academy.
“I heard about these competitions online and I decided to start furthering my knowledge on these subjects and aspects of the cyber realm,” Hart said. He gathered some friends with the same interests and eventually got backing from the computer science department establishing an official team for the academy. They began competing in 2011.
“We’ve had enormous success. I’m extremely proud of the cadets,” Carlisle said.
Their pinnacle achievement thus far came last fall. The team snagged a first place victory out of all the undergraduate teams in the U.S. and Canada at the New York Polytechnic Cyber Security Awareness Week Capture the Flag Qualifiers where 331 teams competed.
The academy team was the only team to solve all 32 challenges presented at the competition, said Col. David Gibson, permanent professor and head of the academy’s computer science department. To mirror real-life scenarios, the competition was a straight 48-hour ordeal requiring teammates to work and sleep in shifts throughout the competition.
The team later traveled to New York City for the finals where they earned a 5th place finish.
Another more recent triumph was defending their title as the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Cyber Defense champs for the second year over the first weekend of March. The team advances to Finals in San Antonio for the third straight year to compete for the National Championship. The finals will be held April 19-21.
“This is the biggest collegiate network defense competition,” Hart said.
Also in April, they will compete in the Cyber Defense Exercise (CDEx) hosted by the National Security Agency. It is a competition between all of the military academies. In this competition, all military academies set up a network to certain specs. The National Security Agency tries to break into these networks.
“Whoever defends their network the best wins,” said Hart. “We are hoping to repeat this year.”
In 2012, The U.S. Air Force Academy walked away with the championship.
To train for competitions the team works on a closed-network cyber training range that doesn’t affect the Internet.
“To practice, one thing they do might be to experience with attack software,” said Carlisle. “There are tutorials they go through with problems they find and solve.”
He said dedicating a time and facility in which to practice and learn are the key elements of success.
“The cadets are bright and also very motivated,” he said. “They understand this isn’t just a game but something that’s going to be important to the defense of our nation. They put a lot of investment in that and are really excelling.”
According to Carlisle, all the students who have graduated from the team have gone into the cyber warfare field.
“It’s a new career field we’ve had for about 3 or 4 yeas,” he said. “The cadets we are preparing now are going to be leaders and visionaries in how we operate in cyberspace.”
Hart is among those future leaders. Already armed with his first assignment upon graduation, Hart will begin a career as a cyber warfare officer for the U.S. Air Force. He will head to Keesler Air Force Base in Buloxi, Miss. for six months of training.
“It’s been an amazing experience and I’m proud to say I’ve been on the team and [have been] captain. I’m proud to have helped start the team and it is amazing how far we’ve come in a short time together,” Hart said.
While there are some extended family members who have served, Hart said his personal decision to serve in the military is something he believes is innate.
“I feel like the United States has given me so much, it’s part of my duty to give back to that,” he said.
As for pursuing a computer science degree, he attributes his decision to a variety of factors.
“Since I was little, my brother and I were into computers,” he said. “We played computer games, learning to make our own video games and went from there.”
Hart also took two computer programming classes at Champlin Park High School scoring a 7 out of 7 on the International Baccalaureate computer science test. Those experiences confirmed his confidence and ability in pursuing the field.
Contact Mindy Mateuszczyk at [email protected]