Students participate in world’s largest international cyber defense exercise

Students from Marshall University went to Morgantown last month and participated in the world’s largest international cyber defense exercise, run virtually by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia.

This year, 24 “Blue Teams” from countries throughout the world competed in the “Locked Shields” exercise and competition April 19-21. West Virginia led the United States’ Blue Team, which included mission assurance specialists from the West Virginia National Guard’s Army Interagency Training and Education Center’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Battalion, as well as the National Guard’s legal specialists, cyber threat analysts, and public affairs experts to receive and resolve various injects of the simulated environment.

Students from Marshall, as well as West Virginia University and West Virginia Tech, partnered with the U.S. Blue Team in taking on the role of a national cyber rapid reaction team deployed to assist the country in handling a large-scale cyber incident with all its implications.

The West Virginia-led U.S. team finished 15th overall. The six Marshall students who participated included four from Marshall’s Cyber Forensics and Security program in the College of Science – Alisha Joseph, John McFee, Ethan Endes and A.J. Clark — and two students from the Computer and Information Security program in the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences — Zander Lambert and Austin Woodrum.

As participants, they learned how to function as part of a team and how organizations respond to cyberattacks, and how to apply what they’ve learned in Marshall’s academic programs to realistic cyberattacks, said John Sammons, chair of the Cyber Forensics and Security program and associate director of Marshall’s Institute for Cyber Security.

“This has been a tremendous learning opportunity for students. Any time we can provide students an opportunity to participate in this kind of realistic exercise or environment, we do,” Sammons said. “Employers are in dire need of employees that are as close to job ready as possible on day one. Our mission is to produce graduates that meet that demand. Locked Shields really helps us fulfill that mission.

“Collaborating with our academic and military partners made this exercise even more valuable for our students,” Sammons continued.  “During Locked Shields, MU students got to participate alongside the professionals from the West Virginia National Guard and DISA (Defense Information Systems Agency). They also worked closely with students from West Virginia University, and the West Virginia University Institute of Technology. This created a learning experience that is very difficult to re-create in a college classroom. We’re very grateful for the opportunity to participate in Locked Shields.”

The Marshall students who participated reported that the experience was beneficial in multiple ways.

“Going to the Locked Shields competition was an amazing experience because of how immersive that it was,” Alisha Joseph said. “Working alongside industry professionals allowed me to learn things that I could not learn in the classroom, and I was able to confidently complete our group objectives. I enjoyed the challenge of learning how to work in a small group to help our entire team achieve its goals, and I believe this experience has prepared me for my future in cybersecurity.”

Ethan Endres also feels more prepared for the future after Locked Shields.

“It put me in a situation that was very realistic and immersive,” he said. “I got to work alongside government agency workers, West Virginia National Guard members and industry professionals in a collaborative environment. This helped me understand how a ‘well-oiled machine’ works in cyber. This was really cool for me to understand how the workflow between different teams worked externally and internally. I feel like the main thing I will take away from this exercise is thinking on the spot, being ready to ask questions frequently and being ready for things to go wrong and to be proactive.”

According to Marshall graduate student John McFee, “Locked Shields was not only an amazing real-world experience where I got to apply my collegiate knowledge in a hands-on manner, but was also an excellent opportunity to network and learn about the different jobs available in cybersecurity.

“I met numerous industry professionals who gave me some of the best advice I’ve received regarding my future in this field. LS ’22 gave me a better appreciation of what to expect when I graduate from Marshall’s Cyber Forensics and Security M.S. and provided me with some of the experience that jobs are looking for.”

Also, working alongside other students and professionals in the cybersecurity field was a tremendous opportunity to meet others on the same path, McFee said.

“It gave me a renewed sense of, ‘I’m glad I picked this field, and this is definitely what I want to do,’ ” he said. “Watching the professionals put their whole skill sets into this exercise was an exciting opportunity and I was able to pick up a few skills as a result.”

For more information about Marshall’s cybersecurity programs, visit www.marshall.edu/cfs and https://www.marshall.edu/cecs/b-s-in-computer-and-information-security/ .

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Photo: (1) Marshall students Austin Woodrum (left) and John McFee participate in the Locked Shields international cybersecurity exercise in April 2022 in Morgantown.