WVU students use skills in cybersecurity exercise with W.Va. National Guard, Polish allies

WVU computer science major Heather Fetty works with members on the West Virginia National Guard during Operation Locked Shield, an international cybersecurity training exercise. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)
WVU computer science major Heather Fetty works with members on the West Virginia National Guard during Operation Locked Shield, an international cybersecurity training exercise. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

In mid-April, West Virginia University students were given the opportunity to participate in an international, multi-agency cyber competition, Locked Shields. This out-of-classroom exercise enabled students to use the skills they’ve learned in everything from engineering to cybersecurity, media and law in one of the most complex, technical, live-fire challenges in the world.

The cyber defense exercise involved 33 West Virginia National Guardsmen, Defense Information Systems Agency employees, Illinois National Guardsmen and WVU students who partnered with Polish allies. More than 1,200 experts from nearly 30 nations participated in Locked Shields.

In addition to knowledge from their courses of study, WVU students brought experience and lessons learned from participation in past cyber exercises to the competition. But, they also learned a few new things.

“The other students and I were apprehensive going into the event because we had never met any of the guard members in person, but they welcomed us and made us feel like part of their team,” computer science major Heather Fetty said.

Katilyn Hepler, also a computer science major from the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, echoed the emphasis on teamwork.

“Not only did I gain more cybersecurity knowledge through Locked Shields, but I also further developed my teamwork skills by learning how to collaborate with a team in a very short period of time,” Hepler said.

“The exercise itself exposed me to systems, tools and other ways of combating attacks on our systems that propelled me to learn even more outside of my classes,” computer science major Jonathan Malcomb said.

Twenty-two friendly defense Blue Teams competed to defend a fictional country during the multi-day event.

The West Virginia National Guard – DISA Mission Assurance –Cyber members were a part of a joint team led by Poland and included additional National Guard members supporting the event both in the exercise and real-world capacities.

Participants were graded on how well they protected their networks while following the established rules of engagement for gameplay. Legal specialists, cyber threat analysts and public affairs experts –all students –joined the team to offer insights on various aspects of the simulation.

Abigail Riggs, a junior public relations student in the WVU Reed College of Media, took a course in crisis communication led by assistant professor Julia Daisy Fraustino, who connected Riggs with the Locked Shields competition.

“This was my first out-of-classroom experience with crisis and risk communication, and even though it was a simulation, the event felt real-world,” Riggs said. “I learned a lot about crisis messaging from my media partner, Captain Gault, and I was able to practice using my own knowledge as a student to help guide the public during a stressful event.”

Ashman Dodd is a graduate student earning his MS in Business Cybersecurity Management fully online in the John Chambers College of Business and Economics. He also holds a full-time job with CACI International, Inc., a company that provides expertise and technology to enterprise and mission customers in support of national security missions and government transformation for defense, intelligence and civilian customers.

Given the alignment with his professional experience, Dodd was quick to say yes when asked to participate by Management Information Systems Teaching Assistant Professor Chris Ramezan.

“This was an unforgettable experience that reinforced the importance of coordination, cooperation, knowledge and skills between civilian and military experts of the NATO alliance in supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure,” Dodd said. “The hands-on experience goes above and beyond what any video or lesson can offer. I can’t wait to help future students train for this exercise.”

And this opportunity held special meaning for second-year College of Law student Dayton Meadows.

“As a former United States Marine, I have always had a desire to serve my country,” Meadows said. “I was honored by the opportunity to represent my country and assist the National Guard on the international stage.”

This exercise is a working proof of concept of the newly formed partnership between WVU, the WVNG and DISA, forged after meetings between senior leaders of all three entities in December, 2020.

“It was a really, really great experience,” said Staff Sgt. Paul Coffy, exercise lead and lead cybersecurity analyst for the WVNG DISA MA-C team. “In the future, what we want to do is create a partnership between the three entities – the West Virginia National Guard, DISA and WVU – to create training environments to prepare for things like [the exercise]. We want to be able to structure this relationship for the betterment of the state of West Virginia and the advancement of national cybersecurity resiliency.”

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