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At UCF, Cybersecurity Is a Team Sport

The internationally recognized student organization puts a spotlight on the hacking industry.
By: UCF News | April 24, 2024
Members of the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition Team at UCF (Photo by Kadeem Stewart)

Some kids love video games; others are intrigued by how they work. As a 13-year-old, Noah Magill enjoyed breaking into them. The pleasure derived from hacking computers followed the digital rabble-rouser throughout high school and into his search for a college.

“I looked over all the big-name universities and saw that they didn’t have a good cybersecurity offering or any clubs for their undergraduates,” says Magill, now a 20-year-old honors information technology student and Burnett Honors Scholar. “Then I reached out to UCF and learned about one of the biggest and best cybersecurity clubs and collegiate teams in all the United States. That was the selling point for me.”

Thanks to Magill and 406 of his classmates who are current members, the Collegiate Cyber Defense Club at UCF has been sending teams of students around the world to cash in on tournaments at the expense of some of the leading universities in the United States. The latest list of first-place honors for Hack@UCF — as it is more informally known — includes the 2024 Information Security Talent Search (ISTS) competition hosted by Rochester Institute of Technology; the National Centers for Academic Excellence (NCAE) Cyber Games Southeast Regional, in Tampa; the CAE Virtual Internship and Varied Innovative Demonstrations (VIVID) competition qualifier; and the Southeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (SECCDC), which qualifies UCF to compete in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in San Antonio, Texas,  April 25-27.

In all, UCF cybersecurity teams have earned 87 first place awards — including five NCCDC titles — 29 second-place and 25 third-place awards. The competitions, which allow UCF students to sharpen and display their skills before cybersecurity professionals, are hosted by companies from private industry, such as Cyberbit, Google, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Raymond James, and Raytheon and federal agencies, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Energy, National Security Agency and Air Force.

Although each competition is different, student teams are typically asked to solve real-world cybersecurity challenges, such as networking, system administration, reverse engineering, cryptography, hacking, programming and forensics, in real-time.

“These companies or government agencies are banking on the fact that schools send their best teams of students to these competitions,” says Thomas Nedorost, an associate instructor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the club’s faculty advisor since 2013 when it was formed by one student who wanted a chance to compete. “It is a recruiting event for them. They get to see the best students from each of the schools that are invited to participate.”

Expectations Exceeded

In 2013, Jonathan Singer ’13 was a UCF senior information technology student who was intent on making a name for himself when he approached Nedorost about obtaining grant funding. When the conversation quickly turned from trying to earn money to having some fun, the idea to start a cybersecurity club and team at UCF was born. The first club meeting exceeded expectations, attracting 86 students who had a strong interest in cybersecurity.

“Some of the most talented UCF students started to come out of the woodwork,” says Singer, a cybersecurity consultant for Virginia-based GuidePoint Security. “I thought I was cool because I already had some industry experience, but the students that came to our first meetings were some of the most incredible and brilliant people I’ve ever met in my life.”

From those early meetings, word spread. Students from all disciplines began to take an interest in the club. Competitions expanded the club’s presence internationally. Today, Hack@UCF is a juggernaut, featuring four students who have been drafted to the prestigious U.S. Cyber Team.

Recruiting Vehicle

Not only does Hack@UCF participate in competitions worldwide — exposing members to internships, job opportunities, the chance to travel and scholarship money — it invites experts from major companies to campus to discuss the latest trends in offensive and defensive cybersecurity strategies. The workshops the club conducts on campus, in the community and at high schools are a huge recruiting vehicle to attract top students with strong aptitudes and an interest in cybersecurity to UCF.

“I’ve really enjoyed being with the club — it’s my favorite thing to do at UCF,” says senior Harrison Keating, the team’s captain who first learned of UCF due to the club’s participation in a collegiate cybersecurity competition. “Before I decided on UCF, I got a chance to attend a few club meetings and I was pretty much hooked from there.”

Keating says to sustain a top-rated cyber team requires as much as 20 hours of practice a week, which, for many club members, is compounded by classwork, internships, part-time employment and weekend competitions. It also demands financial support to cover competition registration fees, travel expenses, training materials, uniforms and out-of-state tuition waivers to recruit high-potential students to the team.

Labor Shortages

Companies, including Lockheed Martin, Harris, Northrup Grumman and Raytheon, that routinely hire UCF students as cybersecurity engineers and analysts, penetration testers, and developers have made donations in the past to offset those costs. Given the national shortage in cybersecurity talent, it is in the best interest of others to do so as well.

In the United States, the cybersecurity workforce boasts more than 1,178,662 jobs — with around 572,392 of them yet to be filled, according to CyberSeek, a project supported by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE), a program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“Cyberattacks can have serious consequences on just about everything — from the power grid to defense systems to our personal information,” Nedorost says. “It is imperative that organizations — industry and government — and concerned citizens continue to invest in developing new talent and cybersecurity programs at the university level to ensure tomorrow’s professionals have the essential skills to navigate these constantly evolving threats.”

Story from At UCF, Cybersecurity Is a Team Sport by Joseph Harkins for UCF Today