Clark State Hack-A-Thon helps students, teachers

Nearly 20 students and teachers spent two days this week at Clark State’s Hack-A-Thon, a showcase of interns’ skills in computer hacking.

The annual event includes teachers participating in an externship and college and high school students. They are split into five groups competing to complete challenges in two game modes gaining scores in categories including forensics, web exploitation, reverse engineering, and binary exploitation.

It is part of a nine-week security ethical hacking summer internship, with the winners of the Hack-A-Thon being recognized at the Showcase on Thursday.

The program started in 2008 and has become more complex over the years, according to Cathy Balas, co-principal investigator of the Cyber-Pros Program.

“They will be doing hacking exercises designed to perfect their ability to defend computer systems from hackers,” Balas said.“Hack-A-Thon prepares participants to defend computer systems and teaches the skills used by hackers so they can counter those skills.”

Michael Qaissaunee, professor of Engineering & Technology at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, led the program this year for the first time. He said the students are very engaged with the “capture the flag” game.

“It does teach them. This is not the traditional ‘here’s a question, what’s the answer,’” he said.

The students have to figure out a puzzle and, in doing so, they sharpen their computer hacking skills.

Qaissaunee taught the first eight weeks of the course from New Jersey, while students interacted with him through cameras set up throughout the room.

The National Science Foundation sponsored the event through an Advanced Technological Education grant awarded to Clark State. The money is designed to aid faculty and students with advanced training and hands-on experiences in the field of cybersecurity.

“We have three high school students who haven’t had cyber courses at all; we have students who’ve graduated college, it’s a wide range,” Balas said. She said that the diversity of the group strengthens communication skills that are vital to employers.

The students will have different takeaways at the end of the competition, according to Qaissaunee.

“If we have people who are leaning towards cyber security, this is the thing that pushes them the rest of the way. For people who were already going into the field, this confirmed it for them,” he said. “For others they learned that this wasn’t a career for them, but they take away skills and security awareness.”

Shawnee High School Science teacher Benjamin Eckstein was one of the externs in the program.

“I’ve learned a lot about cyber security vulnerabilities. I’m definitely going to bring some of this into my teaching practices and getting students interested in these fields,” Eckstein said.

One of his partners on his team was Conner Cox, a student from Shawnee High School. He said it was nice to finally get formal instruction in the hacking field.

“I’ve always been interested in computers, and this has been a great opportunity to learn more about them,” Cox said.