High school students put cybersecurity skills to the test to win $20,000 in UAB scholarship funds

The Blazer42 Capture the Flag Scholarship Competition provides valuable experience to high school students in an effort to inspire more to pursue careers in cybersecurity.

Written by: Tiffany Westry

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Twenty high school students from around the state brought their best digital investigation skills to the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Feb. 25 for the Blazer42 Capture the Flag Scholarship Competition, held at UAB’s Edge of Chaos.

capture flag warnerFrom left, UAB's Gary Warner poses with first place winners Nick Nurre, Bryce Willhelm, Connor Smith and Dylan Maurel, and Rick Howard, CSO of Palo Alto Networks.Five teams of four students participated in simulated hacking events created by UAB’s Capture the Flag team. The goal of the game is to uncover “flags” hidden in various cybersecurity challenges. The competition is designed to cultivate students’ interest in cybersecurity and get them thinking about the field as a college and career path.

“There are currently 290,000 vacant cybersecurity jobs in the United States with an average starting salary of about $80,000,” said Gary Warner, director of the UAB Center for Information Assurance and Joint Forensics Research. “That deficit is expected to increase to 1.5 million globally by the year 2019. We have a tremendous opportunity to fill some of these jobs if we can find kids who are passionate about cybersecurity, help them come to UAB to get a degree and guide them on the path to a great career.”

Students competed for $20,000 in scholarship funds to study computer science or digital forensics as UAB. The event, hosted by the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Justice Sciences and Palo Alto Networks, tested their knowledge of cybersecurity in a number of areas, including social media, network analysis, file analysis, data encoding and encryption, and web security.

capture flag 2Bryce Willhelm, Dylan Maurel, Connor Smith, and Nick Nurre of team RSAHHS.“Cybersecurity is a fabric item to our lives,” said Rick Howard, chief security officer at Palo Alto Networks. “Just 10 years ago, you may not have thought the internet was going to be that important to you; but today, if I took away some of the things that you do online, you may not be too happy about it. It’s a thing that is as important as electricity and air conditioning. Protecting crown jewels in cyberspace is a priority of the nation, and we need smart people to get the job done. We are very happy to be partnering with UAB to increase the workforce and tackle this very important issue.”

The winners of this year’s Blazer42 Capture the Flag Scholarship Competition are:

First Place: Huntsville High School seniors Nick Nurre, Bryce Willhelm, Connor Smith and Dylan Maurel of the team RSAHHS. Each team member was awarded $2,500 in scholarship funds to be used toward the study of cybersecurity at UAB.

Second Place: Tuscaloosa Academy juniors Jesse Wells, Jonas Schanz, Sam Daly and Sam Zito of the team Warriors of the Net. Each team member was awarded $1,500 in scholarship funds to study at UAB.

Third Place: Michael Charette, Robert Thompson, Timothy Jesionowski and Nicholas Scala of team OR 1=1. The students attend James Clemens High School in Madison, Alabama. Each team member was awarded $1,000 in scholarship funds to study at UAB.

Other high schools represented in this year’s competition include the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School and students from the John Pope Eden Career Tech Center in Ashville, Alabama.

capture flag streamGary Warner and UAB graduate student Brian Thacker assist James Clemons High School senior Nicholas Scala during the competition.UAB offers Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in computer and information sciences. This spring, a new Bachelor of Science degree in digital forensics was launched. This interdisciplinary degree program, is joint offering from the Department of Justice Sciences and the Department of Computer and Information Sciences. The program is designed to prepare graduates for a professional career in the field of digital forensics and cybersecurity.

Digital forensics involves the recovery and investigation of material found on digital devices. The focus of the digital forensics program is an understanding of the procedures and processes necessary to discover, recover, analyze and present in court information that has been stored on digital devices, including mainframe and personal computers, cellphones, tablets, and gaming and other devices used during illegal activities. The program also puts an emphasis on investigating cybercrime for the purpose of prevention.

Next year’s Blazer42 Capture the Flag Scholarship Competition will be held Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018.