Engineering Students Take Top Prizes in Cybersecurity Competition – University of Arkansas Newswire

First and second place JOLT Cyber Challenge Teams with competition Game Makers
Two U of A cybersecurity teams attended the JOLT Cyber Challenge in Little Rock and emerged victorious.
The weekend of Oct. 7-9, the Department of Computer Science and Computer Engineering sponsored two student groups to travel to the Jack Stevens Center at University of Arkansas at Little Rock to compete in this "capture the flag" style cybersecurity competition.
The student group CyberHogs sponsored the contest registration for the students. Chris Wright, a longtime game maker for JOLT, computer engineering alumnus and U of A Academy of Computer Science and Computer Engineering member, invited the U of A students to join the competition.
The JOLT Cyber Challenge contestants ranged from high school competitors to industry professionals and everything in between. There were myriad companies in attendance, not only to network but to compete. The competition was Alice in Wonderland themed, using quotes as flags for the teams to find.
Computer science senior Austin Flynn, sophomore Luke Simmons, sophomore Alex Prosser and junior Zachary Harris all competed for the first time at this competition and placed second overall, winning $500. Going into the competition, the students didn't know what to expect.
"It was kind of intimidating because we were surrounded by industry leaders with advanced desktop setups, and all we had were our laptops," Flynn said.
This didn't discourage them, though. "The students in this competition really rise and become fierce competitors because we are constantly in an environment where we are trying to learn on the fly, whereas people in industry settle into a routine. JOLT brings out the ability to quickly absorb and use information the best way you can," he continued.
Karsen Beck, Mitchell Bylak, Katie Kettler and Henry Schmidt joined forces and placed first overall, winning $1,000. They have more to brag about, as they set the record for the most points ever recorded at a JOLT competition, breaching 20,000 points.
"It was really awesome how well we all worked together. If I was having trouble with something, I could ask my teammates, and they were really supportive," said Kettler.
The competition wasn't just a test of previous knowledge and skills, but also to learn new skills. According to Bylak, Kettler, Harris and Prosser, the experience this competition brings is one of the most empowering parts.
"It was really cool how the challenges required previous knowledge, but there was more that you could learn while you are there. It isn't only a test of knowledge, but a test of learning ability. I went in not knowing a whole lot about cybersecurity and came out feeling like I improved a semester's worth of technical skills," Bylak said.
"It was all stuff that we had never done before. I had never tried to disassemble malware, but I taught myself the process of it. People came up and asked for help on problems they couldn't get past, and I know what it is like to be stuck, so I was happy to help," added Harris.
Simmons agreed, saying, "Everyone was really friendly. Nobody would straight out give you answers to problems but would guide you along and give you the opportunity to figure things out for yourself. Figuring out how to get unstuck after being stuck on a problem for so long is a huge breakthrough that makes me super happy."
The problems weren't just made up, fantasy scenarios, either.
"We were able to get experience with real-world stuff," Prosser said. "One of the malware problems I solved was taken from an actual email virus."
Though this competition was a first for most of the students, Beck is not new to this. The 2022 JOLT Cyber Challenge was Beck's fourth and his second first-place win in a row. In the future, Beck will only be allowed to return to the competition as a game maker creating challenges for new teams.
"Every time I've done this, it has been at a different place. This year there were a lot more people, so it felt like there was a lot more activity going on and a lot more energy. This year we were neck and neck with the other U of A team the whole time, so it was really intense and a way better competition," Beck said.
Both teams left the competition with newfound network connections as well as friendships. Flynn, Simmons, Prosser and Harris didn't know each other well before creating their team but now see each other as friends and hope to compete together in future competitions. Beck, Bylak, Kettler and Schmidt also formed a tighter bond.
"This was really fun because we all got to hang out outside of school or meetings," Bylak said.
"It was really cool that we all got to bond. I feel closer to all my teammates after this!" added Kettler.
When asked if they would recommend attending competitions like this to other students interested in cybersecurity, the answer was unanimous: yes! The competition is made for everyone from all backgrounds to enjoy.
"It is a lot of fun for anyone, even if you don't know what you're doing," Beck said. "There are tons of people there who will help you. You will never be stuck and unable to go anywhere, because there are supporters who will help you learn through it. It's a great experience."
Kettler noted the diversity of the competition, saying, "I thought I would be the only woman, but I was excited to see a few other women competing! I would love to see more women participate in the future. I wish more would do cybersecurity because it is so much fun."
The managing director and test engineer for the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission (NCREPT) at the U of A Department of Electrical Engineering, Chris Farnell, also serves as a mentor for CyberHogs. He joined the students on their trip to Little Rock for support.
"It was great to see our students competing and collaborating with the other schools and various industry groups attending JOLT. I believe a lot of meaningful connections were made during this competition and look forward to participating again next year," Farnell said.
Overall, the 2022 JOLT Cyber Challenge was a huge success for U of A students who represented the university brilliantly.
Dani Jackson, communications and marketing specialist
Computer Science and Computer Engineering
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