Hacking Competition to Teach Students About Computer Science

Carnegie Mellon University students work together on a hacking competition for younger students.

by / April 24, 2013 0
A screenshot of the Toaster Wars game preview.

Two groups from Carnegie Mellon University are trying to get middle and high school students interested in computer science by starting a hacking competition.

Members of the Plaid Parliament of Pwning and Team Osiris worked together to create a computer security competition called picoCTF 2013 that will run from April 26 to May 6. More than 1,250 teams have registered, and other teams can sign up until the last day of the competition.

As far as the organizers know, this is the first Capture the Flag competition for students at the 6th- through 12th-grade level. Capture the Flag competitions focus on challenges related to computer security. Pieces of information called flags are encrypted, hidden or stored in places that aren't easy to access. The students' job is to find these flags by decrypting code, hacking into machines or reverse engineering.

While computer security typically isn't introduced until the university level, it has a lot of value for students, said Peter Chapman, a PhD candidate in Carnegie Mellon University's Computer Science Department and the technical lead for picoCTF. And it's important to learn how computers work at a deeper level.

The organizers at Carnegie Mellon hope that the competition will identify all-star students who can do some of the technical challenges and also pull students' attention toward computer science. The National Security Agency (NSA) is sponsoring the competition.

"It kind of started just as an experiment — the NSA research team was interested in high school education, we liked throwing hacking competitions, and we decided it would be fun — but it's turned into something more serious," Chapman said.

In this year's themed adventures called Toaster Wars, hackers participate in a story as a character who wakes up to a loud noise. Once he wanders outside, he sees a number of objects that tore through the earth, including a robot from space.

He checks out the robot, which has been damaged, and sees a number of problems to solve. He has to figure out what file system format to enter in order to stop the blue screen of death. And he also has to crack the code hidden in an encrypted paragraph.

The challenge gives students four different levels so they can compete no matter how much programming experience they have. Level 1 requires some math and computer knowledge. Level 2 requires basic programming experience with languages such as Visual Basic or Alice. Level 3 targets AP computer science students who can do more advanced programming. And Level 4 adds even more complexity.

After completing each level, students receive a certificate and could win some prizes. While anyone can play, only teams of middle school and high school students in the U.S. can receive prizes for their teams or schools.

Throughout the competition, a series of educational videos introduces the concepts students will need to understand to complete challenges. And while the competition only lasts a week and a half, contest materials will stay up on the Internet indefinitely. Long-term, the student organizers plan to build a repository of content that teachers can use to supplement their lessons.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.