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SANS CyberStart

One cyber security program is doing more than educating students. It's inspiring them.
SANS CyberStart

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5 GenCyber Camps and 1 High School are Demonstrating How CyberStart Helps Participants Overcome the Disheartening Aspects of CTFs

"Using Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions, many players hit a wall, can't make any progress and then give up on CTFs. CTFs can become a negative experience where new players feel like everyone else "knows stuff" and they feel shut out. CyberStart provides a friendly intro to CTFs that overcomes the barriers to entry - Using the CyberStart game, we can level out the learning ramp to CTFs."

- Mandy Galante, GenCyber Camp Leader, High School Teacher, Yale Educator Award Winner, CyberPatriot Teacher of the Year, New Jersey

CyberStart as a tool to recruit and inspire students into cyber learning

CTFs are a great cyber learning tool but they can be exclusionary - Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions are a valuable learning tool - nothing motivates like a contest and a prize! But there can be a steep learning ramp to playing CTFs and often they are crafted so that prior knowledge is necessary for success. It can become a negative experience where new players feel like everyone else "knows stuff" and they feel shut out. The result is that many players hit a wall, can't make any progress and then give up on CTFs. Students can't learn if they feel shut out and aren't playing the game!

CyberStart provides a friendly intro to CTFs that overcomes the barriers to entry - Using the CyberStart game, we can level out the learning ramp to CTFs. The early stage CyberStart challenges introduce players to foundational concepts so they can accumulate enough of the "stuff" everybody else already knows. At every point in CyberStart there is scaffolding for new concepts through the Field Manual, Hints and search tips. This means that a player always has easily accessible resources and won't face any game-ending points of frustration. If we want to expand the community of students who are learning from challenging CTFs, it makes sense to reduce the exclusionary nature by giving everyone the keys to the club.

CyberStart can be a valuable first step towards achieving US National goal of motivating student interest in STEM and especially cybersecurity fields - This summer CyberStart was successfully piloted in GenCyber camps and is currently being piloted as part of a high school Digital Forensics curriculum. What was found from these programs is that as students play the CyberStart game, they practice problem-solving, critical thinking and persistence in overcoming hurdles. While these are key STEM skills, more importantly the competition often identifies students who hadn't previously seen themselves as being interested or having talent in cybersecurity.

CyberStart Game Overview

  1. Bases - Headquarters and Moon - these are the portals to levels.
    Levels - Each level has multiple challenges and the next level is unlocked after a certain number are completed. Players don't need to complete the entire level to move to the next - as something makes sense later, the player can come back to apply that new knowledge. Learning doesn't have to be linear; it is problem-based and unique to each person's challenge preference.

    Headquarters
    Moon Base

  2. HQ Base has a total of 13 levels with challenges that are distributed across multiple categories such as:

    Online Safety & Social Engineering Cryptography and Encoding Web Security and Javascript
    Basic Linux Command Line Basic Programming and Scripts File Forensics
    Programming Overflow Errors URL Manipulation SQL Database Manipulation

    Note: CyberStart does not follow a "Jeopardy" style format as the challenges do not have labeling to indicate category. The player will first use deduction to determine the proper approach to a solution.

    Example Cryptography Challenge

  3. Help resources:
    • The Cyberstart Field Manual provides basic instruction on each of the category concepts. Some players will opt to learn first, and then play - others will use it as a resource as they go through the game.
    • Optional hints are available for each challenge but the player must sacrifice points to access them. This provides an incentive for players to try to solve challenges without help, but ensures that players will not hit a wall and will continue to positively experience the game.
    • A narrative briefing sets up the scenario for each challenge. The information in the briefing provides the player with a basis to start searching online for solution methods. This helps students to improve their Google searching skills, a key talent needed to succeed at CTFs and in life!