This year's winter weather is a mere dusting compared to the winter storm that college students are grappling with this weekend at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
Eight teams of students are fending off a massive cyber attack in the midst of a storm more devastating than Maryland's blizzard of 1993, prompting the governor and president to declare states of emergency and deploy aid to residents.
The scenario provides the backdrop for the teams competing Friday and Saturday at the ninth annual Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. The event allows students to test their cybersecurity skills while giving schools a way to assess and evaluate their own information technology programs.
"It's the closest thing I can get to real-world experience without having a job," said Matthew Spriesterbach, a competitor from Towson University. "College classes give you the general theory; this is the application, which is a lot of fun."
The competition at the APL's Kossiakoff Center in Howard County includes teams from Towson; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Anne Arundel Community College; and Capitol College, located in Laurel. Other squads come from the University of West Virginia, Millersville University in Pennsylvania, and Radford University and Liberty University, both in Virginia. Those eight teams advanced past a qualifying round that included 29 teams.
The competition is run by the National CyberWatch Center, a National Science Foundation-funded facility with headquarters at Prince George's Community College. Organizers say that as cybersecurity expands as an industry in Maryland, companies are looking for students who have practical experience.
"The whole purpose ... was to increase the quantity and quality of the nation's cybersecurity work force," said Lewis Lightner Mid-Atlantic competition director for the National CyberWatch Center.
Lightner said the competition was created with a focus on two-year colleges in the Baltimore-Washington area but was expanded nationally and now includes four-year schools. The winner of this weekend's competition will head to a national competition in San Antonio next month.
"The scenario this year is a very stressful event for these students," Lightner said. "They're here for two days, and they're constantly under attack."
Teams score points for keeping their operations up and running, but they are constantly threatened by "hackers" — cybersecurity professionals volunteering their time and devious expertise — who try to steal data and take down servers. Competition officials stage scoring rounds throughout the day, but don't tell the teams when they are being scored.
Angela Saccone, a student at Anne Arundel Community College, said her team got off to a shaky start but "learned a lot from our mistakes."
She said the competition should prove invaluable in the working world because "the things we thought were going to work did not work, but we can always implement a new plan."
"There's a very real need for more skilled workers in these fields, and events like these give students a realistic experience they can't get elsewhere," said Geoff Brown, spokesman for APL, which has hosted the competition for four years.
The weekend also includes a job fair featuring event sponsors and partners, this year including the Department of Homeland Security and technology firms such as Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, as well as host Johns Hopkins APL.
Millersville University graduate and former competitor Travis Romero said after he attended last year, he remained in contact with several companies recruiting at the event, including Sterling, Va.-based Neustar, an information services and analytics company.
A month after he graduated, Neustar hired him.
"The competition meant pretty much everything; coming from a computer science background, I was not necessarily prepared to enter cybersecurity," Romero said. "This competition is what made me start studying that, and gave me something to work toward."