CSU-Pueblo Unleashes the CyberWolves
Students are leading the pack on the next generation of cybersecurity.
Cybersecurity may conjure ideas of defending the nation’s internet against hackers and attackers, and that would be correct.
But for many, especially Colorado State University Pueblo students, getting familiar with the skills required for working in cybersecurity begins as an enjoyable challenge.
CSU-Pueblo is part of the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity (NCAE-C), one of many institutions managed by the National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic School.
Competitive in Cybersecurity
For six years now, it’s participated in competitions put on by the National Cyber League in which students compete in varying degrees of cybersecurity challenges.
CSU-Pueblo’s CyberWolves team has a knack for computer science, learning and competing in tournaments under the direction of Roberto J. Mejias, associate professor of computer information systems and director of the CSU-Pueblo Center for Cyber Security Education and Research (CCSER).
“Not many schools have these programs or compete,” Mejias says. “The National Cyber League gets all these schools to compete on cyber challenges where the FBI, CIA and NSA are some of our adversaries.”
Schools like CSU-Pueblo are currently generating “a cadre of young cyberwarriors” who will eventually help defend the U.S. against international cyber threats,” Mejias says.
But to train these young cyberwarriors in a way that makes learning enjoyable, the challenges posed in NCL competitions are put in the form of games, including password cracking, web exploitation and cryptography.
“We’ve been doing this since 2016, when we had a scrappy team of about five players competing against Michigan, MIT, Stanford and Texas A&M,” Mejias says.
Building a Reputation
As CSU-Pueblo’s initial handful of competing students grew, so did its reputation in the world of cybersecurity.
Jim Quintana, NCL and NSA lab developer and now a crucial part of the CyberWolves team, signed on to help create labs and challenges to test students and further prepare them for competitions. Then came the idea to apply for funding for the rapidly growing team, and the CyberWolves eventually secured two external grants that provided around $2.5 million.
“We have Pueblo Community College, Pikes Peak State College and Arapahoe Community College that feed into our program,” Mejias says. “So, we gave them a chunk of the money so they could develop their programs, too. We now have over 600 players who have participated.”
On the Prowl
In 2022, the CyberWolves competed in the NCL Cyber Games and Individual Competitions, placing 24th out of 3,000+ teams and ranking in the top 1% of participating schools in the nation.
In November 2022, the CyberWolves competed in the NCL Cyber Games and Individual Competitions, placing 24th out of over 3,000 teams and ranking in the top 1% of participating schools in the nation. The team included 29 players, five of whom were female identifying, and had 30% participation from underrepresented student groups or minorities.
Of the students who competed, two placed highly in the Individual Competition: Kevin Shu finished 15th and Luis Irizarry 177th out of 3,500 competitors. For Shu, who is a concurrent high school and CSU student, this was his first semester working with the CyberWolves.
While Shu says he had an interest in computer science for a long time, Irizarry (who was also competing for the first time in 2022) says he started at CSU-Pueblo knowing virtually nothing about computers.
“I have to credit CSU-Pueblo for providing me with all the resources I needed to excel,” he says. “The way they gamify cybersecurity is very effective.”
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Skills for the Future
In addition to CSU students honing skills that give them an edge in competition, they’re also learning critical techniques for future careers in cybersecurity.
“The FBI, CIA and NSA are recruiting at these competitions,” Mejias says. “Any company would love to have these students work for them. We have an 80% immediate employment rate from our graduates, with companies like Boeing or Department of Defense organizations.”
And despite Shu’s longtime interest in computer science, he encourages anyone slightly curious about the field or what the CyberWolves do to get involved.
“Learning cybersecurity has been really helpful to me, not only the skills that are increasingly important but the process of learning,” he says. “Anyone with a greater interest in cybersecurity should pursue it.”
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