Guidance counselors today are urging their students to consider becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, and … computer hackers? That's the goal with picoCTF, Carnegie Mellon University's free, online cybersecurity competition for middle and high school students, which launches today for the fourth time since its inception in 2013.
"There's a huge shortage of professionals in cybersecurity, and limited opportunities for middle and high school students to learn about this field," says CyLab's Marty Carlisle, Education Director for picoCTF and a professor in the Information Networking Institute.
We're aiming to inspire a large number of students to enter the field and protect our way of life.Marty Carlisle, Education Director of picoCTF and professor in the Information Networking Institute
The Ponemon Institute estimates that the average computer breach cost about $3.5 million last year. Digital security company Gelmato estimates 7 million data records are stolen every day. The goal with picoCTF, Carlisle explains, is for students to have an opportunity to develop interest and knowledge in cybersecurity.
"We're aiming to inspire a large number of students to enter the field and protect our way of life," Carlisle says.
Over 50,000 students have competed in picoCTF since it was first launched in 2013. This year's competition runs from September 28 through October 12.
"These competitions really help, because the kids see this and they say, 'This is challenging. This is what I want to do,'" says Frank Staffen, a computer science teacher from Thomas Jefferson High School in Jefferson Hills, PA, who has had dozens of students compete in picoCTF over the years. "The impact of picoCTF has been amazing. It has transformed our curriculum and impacted our school ten-fold."
Staffen's students have consistently placed among the top finishers out of thousands of teams that have competed each year. Many of his students discovered talents they never knew they had, and went on to study computer security in college.
These competitions really help, because the kids see this and they say, 'This is challenging. This is what I want to do.'Frank Staffen, computer science teacher, Thomas Jefferson High School in Jefferson Hills, PA
"I had two students who had SATs the next day but stayed up all night solving picoCTF challenges," Staffen says. "They told me, 'We can re-take the SATs, but we can’t re-play picoCTF.'"
During the two-week competition, students will solve challenges that start out simple and become progressively more difficult. The challenges, which mimic real-life cybersecurity problems, were developed by the Plaid Parliament of Pwning (PPP), Carnegie Mellon's competitive hacking team famed for its 4-time champion status at the DefCon "World Series of Hacking."
The challenges in picoCTF are housed in an interactive game, designed by a team of students in Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center.
Thousands of dollars in cash prizes are awarded to the top teams. Anyone from around the world can register and play, but only U.S.-based middle and high school students are eligible for prizes.