Iowa State University competition challenges high school teams to build and defend computer networks

Big Brother is watching.
And when it comes to the Internet, he’s not alone. Every link clicked while traveling on the Information Superhighway, be it via personal computer, tablet or cell phone, is being monitored by someone, somewhere. It’s a scary thought that, unfortunately in 2017, also happens to be very true.
Such is the backdrop for the High School Cyber Defense Competition held on the campus of Iowa State University last month. The competition was one of several that make up the Information Technology (IT) Olympics, an annual event for students in grades 9-12.
In 2016 and 2017, Union High School has been represented at the event by sophomore Hunter Stwalley, a young man with a passion for programming. It’s been a very busy year for Stwalley. What began as enrichment activities for a technology class at Union taught by instructor Kyle Kuhlers, led to his participation in the IT Olympics. At the same time, Stwalley was a member of two robotics teams at Union High School, including one that competed at the World Championship competition held in St. Louis last month.
In the months leading up to the Cyber Defense Competition, Stwalley and four teammates from Alburnett and Solon prepared for the simulation, meeting on Thursday nights from October into April at the Kirkwood Community College Center in Hiawatha, where they were taught by a cyber-security specialist from Iowa City.
The premise of the IT Olympics competition was one typical of a real-world business environment. Stwalley and his teammates had to configure a virtual network of computers and servers to provide services for end users. The challenge for the team was to keep the network operational while a group of Iowa State students with the knowledge of how to expose network vulnerabilities, attempted to breach it. Stwalley described the simulation as an activity similar to the game Capture the Flag. Over a period of several hours, Stwalley and his teammates used laptop computers in an effort to defend their network from repeated hack attempts in real time.
Points were awarded for configuring and protecting the network, as well as completing specific tasks called anomalies, activities that could boost the team’s score but also carried the risk of distracting the team from its efforts to defend against hacking attempts.
Going into the competition, Stwalley’s team knew they were short on time to fully secure their network and thus, were vulnerable to attack. The speed at which the attacks came, though, were swift and devastating. One hour into the competition, many of the team’s flags had been captured, leaving them in last place in the overall standings. After the rough start, however, the team rallied to repair the damage done by the hackers and Stwalley’s team went on to place a respectable 11th place out of 32 teams.
The competition experience, while humbling at times, was one Hunter found quite rewarding and he came away from the event having gained valuable experience responding to challenges programmers and engineers face every day on the job.
His advice on how to stay safe to the computer novice at home?
“Install a firewall on your private network. It will help block out as many ways they [the hackers] can get in as possible,” he said.
What’s next for the young man who already knows more about programming than most of the adults in his community? Stwalley said he is looking forward to taking more programming and computer science classes. In the future, it may be possible for students to earn some college credit for participation in the IT Olympics. At this time, though, Union High School currently does not offer technology courses for college credit.
Only a sophomore, Hunter has not decided on a particular career he wants to pursue, though he thinks it may be something in the computer technology field.
“We need more people building computers, programming them and making sure [they are protected],” he said.
In the battle to stay safe on the Internet, there is no doubt that Hunter Stwalley would be a very good friend to have, indeed.