In today’s electronic era, capture the flag has taken on a whole new twist in a unique high school hacking competition. David Brumley, Carnegie Mellon computer science professor, is behind the Toaster Wars.
Toaster Wars is a free, online, fun and challenging high school hacking competition for students in grades 6 through 12. Professor Brumley designed the competition to encourage computer security and computer science education. He has said that Toaster Wars is a means of having students consider cyber security as a career choice.
Approximately 2,000 teams from across the nation participated in the April 26-May 6 competition. The winning team was comprised of five Dos Pueblos High School students: freshman John Grosen, and juniors Andrew Dutcher, Alex Meiburg, Delia Bullock and Charlie Green. The faculty adviser was Kevin McKee.
The winning team will receive $8,000 for their school and, as a team, they will receive $4,000 plus $1,000 in Amazon web services and seven technical books from Wiley Publishing. McKee hopes that some of the school’s prize money will be applied to support an “Exploring Computer Science” introductory class to be offered next year. Currently, Dos Pueblos only offers an Advanced Placement computer science course.
The Toaster Wars challenge: “Imagine that a robot from space crash lands in your backyard and it is up to your hacking skills to fix him and uncover the secret he carries.” In the competition, “flags” or pieces of information, are embedded or encrypted, making them difficult to find. To solve the problem, participants must use computer forensics, cryptography, and other high-level skill sets to solve the mystery. Toaster Wars features high school students hacking real computer systems across multiple levels interwoven into the realistically motivating storyline.
The goal of Toaster Wars is for student teams (teams can be comprised of 1-5 students) design, implement, and run a compelling and authentic computer security game that will teach beginners the basics and challenge the experts as well.
According to Grosen, with the exception of one day working together in the school library, each member of the Dos Pueblos team worked from home, although they were all connected.
To say these students loved the challenge would be an understatement. Problem solving is in their blood.
“It’s something I do. I started writing programs since the age of 5,” said Green, although admitting that at age 5 his programming wasn’t “that great.” Green’s interest blossomed in eighth grade, when he had the technical support provided by a friend’s father.
Bullock, who hopes to attend Columbia University upon graduation, spoke of her childhood interest in puzzles: “I’ve always wanted to go into a math-related field since preschool. I really enjoy it [computer science] because it involves solving logic problems and puzzles.”
Grosen, the youngest member of the team, said, “I love computers. I have been programming since fifth grade and working with computers since before I was two years old.”
His goal is to build a startup like Apple or Microsoft. Who knows, that just might happen.
— Barbara Keyani is the administrative services and communications coordinator for the Santa Barbara Unified School District.