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UMUC pools students' work experience to field winning cyberdefense team

Members of the UMUC Cyber Padawans team compete in the CyberLympics finals in Barcelona in September.
Members of the UMUC Cyber Padawans team compete in the CyberLympics finals in Barcelona in September. (Michele Curel, Baltimore Sun)

They have no marching band, no home arena and no shot at landing on ESPN, but the University of Maryland University College's cyberdefense team is among the world's best.

The Cyber Padawans — a name that references Jedi knights in training in the "Star Wars" movie franchise — recently took first place in the Global CyberLympics, an international competition held in Barcelona, Spain. The team qualified for the event by finishing first in North America, then won the international title over a defending champ from the Netherlands composed of employees of a professional networking company.

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In October, the Padawans also triumphed in Baltimore at the Maryland Cyber Challenge, a meet that draws some of the state's top high school, college and professional teams.

UMUC started 2014 with a budget shortfall, layoffs and uncertainty about its role in the University System of Maryland. But the Padawans' success is gaining attention for the online school, which has students across the country and overseas, and caters to working adults, particularly those in the military.

"People are starting to talk about the Padawans; we're getting the UMUC name out there," said Matt Matchen of North Laurel, a recent UMUC graduate and one of the original team members.

Computer network defense competitions are gaining attention amid concerns about cybersecurity in the wake of highly publicized hacking assaults on such corporations as Apple and Sony.

"Cyber challenges are really becoming an interscholastic sport at high school and college levels," said Rick Forno, Maryland Cyber Challenge co-founder and director of the graduate cybersecurity program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"People are realizing that this is not only a meaningful career field to study, but it's a critical need for national and corporate security," Forno said.

UMUC officials are reveling in the team's success. The school bought the team polo shirts — complete with the Padawans' blue-and-green battle shield logo — and provided use of a lab for practice. The school paid for the team to travel to Barcelona for the international competition and flew out-of-state team members into town for the Maryland Cyber Challenge.

"It is a source of pride for our students that even though they are at a working-adult school, they can beat the best," said UMUC President Javier Miyares. "The Padawans, in winning, are validating the educational experience of working adults."

Matchen, who works at an information security firm in Elkridge, said the competitions have helped him gain more understanding of how networks are constructed — and defended. "What I've learned has made me a better professional," he said.

The Cyber Padawans formed in 2011 under the direction of Jeff Tjiputra, chair of the undergraduate cybersecurity program at UMUC. He said students came to him expressing interest in entering cyber competitions; he became their coach.

"For the first couple competitions, it was really just open invitations for anyone that wanted to join," Tjiputra said. "After a while, we started winning competitions, and we started getting more and more students that wanted to join."

Tjiputra said the Cyber Padawans now hold tryouts with more than 300 students participating. The team has 30 active members.

The school has a deep talent pool, with more than 50,000 graduate and undergraduate students. Tjiputra said 4,000 undergraduate students at UMUC are majoring in cybersecurity.

"The nature of UMUC, we target working adults," Tjiputra said. "They're working in the field, and that's a big advantage for us."

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UMUC's success in cyberdefense comes as the school is rebounding from a series of setbacks in recent years, including laying off 70 employees in March, fueled in part by a revenue deficit and declining enrollments.

Miyares said that over the past two years, the school has cut $60 million from its budget and reduced its workforce by 300, and this fall the school posted a 5 percent gain in U.S. enrollment and a 3 percent increase in Europe and Asia.

Over the summer, UMUC officials considered becoming an independent nonprofit that would maintain some university system affiliation but work more closely with the private sector.

UMUC spokesman Bob Ludwig said the school now hopes to remain a public institution within the university system but will appoint a managing board of "nationally recognized academic, military and business leaders to guide UMUC's growth beyond Maryland and the overseas military."

Amid UMUC's challenges, Miyares said he's proud to be presiding over a school that fields a cyberdefense team, and says his team has advantages over some athletic programs.

"There are no scandals. I don't have to worry about cheating," Miyares said with a chuckle. "Our students, that's not what they come to us for. That's why the Padawans for us are so symbolic. That's who we are. When they're [competing], they're at work."

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