Can They Hack It? Cybersecurity Boot Camp Students Hone Skills Through a Real-Life Hackathon

On February 5th, the students of The Cybersecurity Boot Camp at UCLA Extension walked into class to find a surprise. Their instructor, Jeff Meacham, had planned a full-fledged hackathon for them.

After dividing up into groups of two, the class was given one clue: hack into a password protected file. From there, the teams had to work their way through multiple tasks, figuring out what to do next without any direction from Jeff.

“The purpose of this was not just to do some quick hacks and do a contest, but rather show them the way that hackers operate,” Jeff said.

The power of hands-on learning

A Senior Curriculum Developer, Jeff’s job is to hone and improve course structures.

“Before, I was the lead IT instructor at Stevens-Henager College and a freelance pentester,” he said. “The difference between working at a boot camp and a normal education is the emphasis that is placed on giving students as close to a real-world experience as possible.”

Early in February 2019, Jeff was given the opportunity to see that interaction first-hand as a substitute instructor for the UCLA cohort. “My team and I realized pretty quickly that students like competition,” Jeff said. “So we came up with this idea for a hackathon.”

Project-based, hands-on learning is a pinnacle of the UCLA Extension Boot Camps curricula, but this was the first time a cybersecurity class used their skills in hackathon-style challenge—and deployed a realm of tools all at once.

The hackathon was like a combination between an Escape Room and a game of Capture the Flag. After using brute force to enter a password-protected zip file, the students needed to create a backdoor in a Linux machine to find a flag that would give further instructions. From there, they had to create a fake website with a password portal. Then, they would capture the user’s (Jeff’s) password, and use it to find an image of a flash drive. Within the flash drive, students had to find a deleted picture, read the metadata, and identify when and where the image was taken.

It was a whirlwind test of the students’ cybersecurity prowess—and the first-place group finished it all in an impressive 20 minutes.

“It encompassed all the tools we’ve learned,” said Kyoung Kang, one of Jeff’s students. “I would love to do one of these every week, if not twice a week.”

The beauty of the challenge

As with all things in the rigorous boot camp, these lessons didn’t come easily. It’s one thing to go through a lab assignment armed with textbooks, notes, and resources. It’s another to have to put all of your skills to the test in a timed situation.

“It was nerve-wracking having to work so fast,” Kyoung said. “After we broke into the first box I thought it was done. I looked around and everyone was like, ‘keep going!’”

In the end, the difficulty of this hackathon is a true asset to the students. Being asked to practice new cybersecurity skills all at once gave learners a taste of corporate hacking. “It’s about really getting your hands dirty and using your skills,” Jeff said.

Kyoung agrees. “I know now that if you’re going to be working in cybersecurity, you will be tested on concepts and on technical skills. I developed the soft skills, but it’s about conceptually being able to think through the process and think through them quickly,” said Kyoung. “The boot camp—and this hackathon—it’s training you to think for the real world.”

And the real world is coming for Kyoung sooner than he thought. He’s currently interviewing for a cybersecurity position—and thanks to the boot camp, he’s ready. “The boot camp and the hackathon have already prepared me for what I have to do,” Kyoung said. “I’m 100% sure I can go in confidently and speak about the things I’ve learned.”

What comes next

Through the obstacles, all of the students enjoyed the experience—and so did Jeff. “They had a blast doing this. I was really jealous of them,” Jeff said. “The tools that are available through the boot camp make me think back on my master’s program. I wish I would have been able to have hands-on experiences, like the ones the program provides.”

The exercise was such a success that Jeff is now busy planning the course’s second hackathon. And Kyoung and his classmates are clamoring to see what comes next.

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