pointing to laptop

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) 2023 CyberForce Competition® is right around the corner on November 4. This hands-on, team-based cybersecurity competition offers college students from across the country the opportunity to put their skills to the test to defend critical energy infrastructure in real-world cyber attack scenarios. Sponsored by DOE’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) and led by Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne), the CyberForce Competition challenges student teams to create innovative critical infrastructure cyber defense strategies while balancing their risk mitigating decisions and ensuring a seamless end-user experience.  

To prepare for the competition, many student teams have a mentor, usually an instructor from their university or college. In addition to teaching the computer science or cybersecurity skills that students will need for the competition, mentors serve as coaches in preparation for the event. To them, the CyberForce Competition® is more than a one-day event; it has major impacts on students’ career trajectories. To better understand the team mentor perspective, CESER interviewed four mentors to learn about their experience participating as a team mentor in preparing for the CyberForce Competition and their advice for other interested academics. Read on for some of the highlights. 

Participating in CyberForce is a Win 

Everyone – mentors, students, even the academic institutions – benefits from being a part of the CyberForce Competition. From the mentors’ point of view, the event acts as a sort of litmus test for their curricula. Roger Jeter, a CIS Instructor and CyberForce® team mentor from John A. Logan College, said it helps him know if the skills he teaches throughout the year are still applicable to the current cyber landscape and effective at tackling the evolving problems. “These competitions challenge me to think creatively and strategically, honing my skills while identifying areas of improvement or focus in our educational programs,” added Matthew Boehnke, Assistant Professor of Cyber Security and team mentor from Columbia Basin College

The mentors also get to see how their students work together as a team. “One person cannot do everything by themselves in this competition, which correlates with what happens in real life,” said Dr. Nelbert St. Clair, Assistant Professor of Cyber Defense and team mentor from the College of Coastal Georgia. The competition fosters a sense of collegiality and a cooperative environment where students learn together, assist one another, and tackle issues as a team. 

Students apply critical reasoning and technical skills they learn in the classroom to real-world scenarios with real-world constraints. “They get to test their moxie, or ability to perform, and not just for a grade,” said Mr. Jeter. Because of the dynamic nature of the CyberForce Competition, student teams must adjust their strategies and think outside the box when systems are compromised, just as they would if they were really protecting U.S. critical infrastructure in a professional environment. “The competition expands the students’ knowledge and confidence levels so much every year,” said Dr. Thomas Nedorost, Assistant Lecturer of Computer Science and team mentor from the University of Central Florida.  

Participating universities and colleges can benefit from the CyberForce Competition because, as a national competition, it puts the schools on the cybersecurity map. Each team must apply to participate in the CyberForce Competition, so being a part of the competition can speak to the quality of a school’s curricula. “It signifies a commitment to excellence and hands-on learning, making our program more attractive to prospective students.” said Mr. Boehnke.  

The Path to a Cybersecurity Career  

The CyberForce Competition is part of DOE’s workforce development efforts, supporting the Biden-Harris Administration’s priority to invest in our future cybersecurity professionals. In an increasingly digitized world, a skilled cybersecurity workforce becomes even more valuable to industry and the U.S. energy sector.

CyberForce has always helped increase our students’ interest in pursuing a career in cybersecurity. I’ve never had a student compete in CyberForce and later decide that a cyber career was not something they wanted to pursue."

Dr. Thomas Nedorost
University of Central Florida

The competition enlightens students about career possibilities within the cybersecurity field, especially those at DOE National Laboratories like Argonne. As an undergraduate student in computer science, Dr. Nedorost would have appreciated this kind of exposure to the breadth of careers available to him; he used to think that the “labs were filled with scientists and test tubes. I never knew about the computational career opportunities or even how to apply for a job there.”   

Each year, the competition’s scenario changes to reflect challenges facing current energy systems; in 2023, it focuses on securing distributed energy resources. This keeps participating teams on their toes, pushing them to create innovative solutions in response to different cyber energy scenarios.  

Additionally, with a diverse audience of academics, cybersecurity experts, and industry professionals in attendance, Mr. Boehnke mentioned that networking at the CyberForce Competition can lead to collaborations, research, and career opportunities for both mentors and students.  

“Essentially, this competition is a mini-internship or job interview,” said Dr. St. Clair. It “allows students to demonstrate that they understand different concepts and can apply the knowledge that is taught in the classroom to a given scenario with parameters… As a result, students will be able to share their experiences of resolving problems.” 

Where Do We Go From Here 

As professionals in their respective fields, the team mentors have the following advice for students interested in a career in cybersecurity: 

  • Matthew Boehnke: “The cyber workforce of tomorrow needs to be ready to adapt to new technologies, work collaboratively across disciplines, think critically, and be proactive rather than reactive when addressing the ever-evolving cybersecurity challenges.”
  • Roger Jeter: Learn how to analyze log files. “As more security becomes automated and artificial-intelligence-driven, it will be increasingly important to recognize when those fail.”
  • Dr. Thomas Nedorost: “Cyber criminals will continue to exist and will learn new methods and strategies to exploit the Internet and computer systems to facilitate their criminal activities. That means we will continue to see ever-expanding career opportunities for cybersecurity professionals.”
  • Dr. Nelbert St. Clair: “Develop soft skills to be able to [better] speak to the users or customers in non-technical language so they can help them understand what is happening and what they can do to help resolve these issues.” 

The CyberForce Competition helps prepare these talented students to take on the challenges of tomorrow’s cyber attacks.  Learn more about the 2023 competition here.