Penn State Altoona students collaborate across disciplines on HAX competition

ALTOONA, Pa. — Penn State Altoona has a long history of offering students many professional opportunities in and out of the classroom to better prepare them for the work force upon graduation. One way professors and instructors do that is to create cross-discipline collaborations and projects.

This academic year, what began as an activity for the Security and Risk Analysis (SRA) Club, grew to include entrepreneurs from the Sheetz Fellows Program. The two groups of students teamed up with the national security firm GRIMM for HAX challenges. HAX challenges are presented by GRIMM to the students, who then try to "solve" them.

Five Sheetz Fellows and about 20 SRA club students are participating. During the fall semester, they were given one challenge from GRIMM for each of three months in which they worked together to solve security issues and explore penetration testing techniques on different computer operating systems.

“We are always looking for ways to get business and entrepreneurial students working with others to gain real-world experience,” states Donna Bon, director of the Sheetz Fellows Program. “From my perspective this is a wonderful opportunity for my students to learn about cybersecurity before they have to deal with it as managers of a business. This also helps each group of students learn how to deal with different personalities and be part of a team.”

At the beginning of each monthly challenge, students connected via video conference call to representatives from GRIMM, were given the details of a problem, and challenged to solve it. Throughout the month, students could contact GRIMM with questions and gauge their progress through an online dashboard.

“It is exciting and fun. It's almost like playing a game of Clue,” says Larry Garvin, visiting instructor in information sciences and technology and SRA Club adviser. “My students just eat it up! They're really taking the reins and going for it.”

Hannah Roddy, an SRA major from Mount Union, Pennsylvania, says she wanted to take part in Hax because of the hands-on learning. “The Hax challenges are an awesome way for us to take what we learn in classes and piece it all together in a fun way. The challenges are teaching us how to work around each operating system and how to use command lines to our advantage. We are so lucky to have a chance to do this, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to participate.”

The first monthly Hax challenge of the spring semester began in January. A trip to the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., is in the works, and Bon and Garvin are in the beginning stages of planning a weekend Hackthon for the end of the semester. Students will be divided into two teams — one team will be challenged to defend a network, the other tasked with penetrating and exploiting the network through any vulnerabilities they find during reconnaissance missions and other techniques learned from previous challenges.

Jungwoo Ryoo, professor in information sciences and technology, formed the initial relationship with Ryan Leirvik, who leads the security consulting division at GRIMM several years ago. He says the partnership not only allows students from different disciplines to work together, but offers them real-world experience and opportunities for internships or employment. “GRIMM has its own internship programs and managers are recruiting more employees as the company grows. Through Hax, they can see how capable our students are. It’s really a win-win," he said.

In fact, two students from the SRA club have already interviewed for paid internships this summer, which could lead to full time employment.

Bon hopes to continue offering the program long-term. “It's a good bridge. I’m hopeful that the more excitement that builds, the more students get engaged.”

GRIMM representatives are eager to continue the program, as well. “GRIMM believes in making an impact by mentoring students to have the hands-on technical skills necessary and helping prepare their resumes for the workforce after graduation,” states Maggie Nyzio, project manager at GRIMM.

Adds Garvin, “I’m so excited to work with GRIMM, and they're excited to work with us, so there's all of this positive energy, and it's all for the benefit of the students. It's been great so far. We want to continue it, want to grow it, want to make it better.”