Penn State vies in finals of international collegiate cybersecurity competition


By Jessica Hallman

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the second consecutive year, Penn State advanced to the international finals of the Collegiate Penetration Testing Competition, the world’s largest offensive-based collegiate cybersecurity competition.

Held Jan. 7-10 and hosted virtually by Rochester Institute of Technology, the event was the culmination of eight regional competitions last fall among 500 elite cybersecurity students from 64 schools. The Penn State team earned second place in the New England Regional round and was one of 15 teams to advance to the global finals.

“Making it to the international finals round two years in a row highlights Penn State’s ability to attract enthusiastic students who go above and beyond what is expected of them,” said Cole Daubenspeck, senior in the College of Information Sciences and Technology and captain of Penn State’s team. “It requires a lot of effort to learn the skills needed to succeed in competitions like the Collegiate Penetration Testing Competition, and our team’s success demonstrates the quality of our off-season practice and dedication.”

During CPTC, students spent two days attempting to break into computer networks created for the competition, evaluate their weak points and offer plans to better secure them. They then created and presented a report to the judges on their findings, while offering suggestions for mitigating future risk.

The competition allows students to experience a day in the life of a penetration tester — a security professional hired to test and evaluate an organization’s computer systems and networks to ensure that malicious hackers can’t get in.

Other members of the team include Petr Esakov, a junior studying electrical engineering; Alec Sudol, a sophomore studying computer science; and Joshua Lapitan, a junior studying cybersecurity analytics and operations. Eugene Ryoo and Andrew Colaianni, both juniors studying cybersecurity analytics and operations, served as alternate team members.

Though they ultimately did not place in the top three teams during the final competition, members of the Penn State team said that their experiences at the College of IST — both in and out of the classroom — prepared them for the competition.

“It goes to show that Penn State provides a strong foundational education that is competitive against other international curriculums,” said Cara Schwartz, a senior studying cybersecurity analytics and operations. “Our success in this competition would not have been possible without experience, practice and a dedicated work ethic.”

Schwartz, who has completed two internships focused on penetration testing, said her professional experience helped her to identify potential findings in the competition. She also drew on her IST courses focused on technical writing to help her communicate those findings.

“It can be very difficult to convey technical information to a non-technical or less-technical audience,” she said. “My cyber incident handling and response course laid the foundation for me to develop my technical writing and presentation skills, and my internship experiences helped me in presenting these vulnerabilities in an understandable way.”

Penn State CPTC team members are also active in the College of IST’s Competitive Cyber Security Organization. CCSO aims to educate its members on current cybersecurity methods and practices, and hosts trips to conferences and competitions, such as CPTC, where members can practice what they have learned.

“We’ve put together a curriculum to teach skills that are useful in competitions, as well as general cybersecurity knowledge,” said Jameswell Zhang, vice president of CCSO and a member of the CPTC team. “These are aimed to help people interested in learning about cybersecurity and hacking, even if it’s their first semester.”

Nick Giacobe, assistant teaching professor of information sciences and technology and CCSO adviser, said that CPTC is a way for students to further enhance their education and professional development.

“The competition provides students with a very realistic experience that would be extremely difficult to replicate in the classroom,” said Giacobe. “Students were able to bring forth their knowledge, skills and abilities from all of their classes and outside experience to meet this challenge.”


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College of Engineering Media Relations

a second-place trophy sitting on a bookshelf

A trophy earned by Penn State's Collegiate Penetration Testing Competition team for their second place finish in the New England Regional round. IMAGE: PROVIDED