IT Students Visit Washington D.C.

Christopher Kalen Thomas, one of the MGA students who went on the trip, describes experiences he and his fellow IT majors had in Washington, D.C.

MGA IT Majors Get Exposed to Work of Cybersecurity Specialists in Washington DC

Photo cutline: Pictured left to right, top to bottom: Jason Ellingson, Austin Steger, Dr. Johnathan Yerby, Bryan Cosby, Jacob Corely, Daniel Brown, Kalen Thomas, Tonya Herrington, Nick Marshall, Megan Shuttlesworth, Daniel Depuy, Mashawn Rumph

By Christopher Kalen Thomas

A group of Middle Georgia State University information technology majors recently took over Washington D.C. As part of an organized experiential learning trip designed to expose students to the cyber world at government agencies and non-profit organizations, a group of 11 students and 2 faculty explored D.C. for the week taking in the history of the nation’s Capital and applying what they learned in classes.

Students were assigned specialized tasks to help the trip run more smoothly. Nick Marshall and Austen Steger were responsible for mapping out the best routes to get to appointments using a combination of public transit, a 15-passenger rental van, and plenty of walking.  Marshall said, “I had prior experience in the DC area, so it was easy to be able to navigate our group through the trains and downtown area in a timely manner. I have a photographic memory so being able to picture the map find major landmarks made it easier. I was able to teach the other members of the group the ways to read the map, train lines, and quickest ways to the areas using shortcuts.”

During this 7-day trip we were given personalized tours of government agencies. Christopher Thomas said, “The tours allowed me to see what I was learning was being used in the workplace. I sit there thinking to myself that I am happy to know that what I’ve learned this far will transition when I go into the workforce.”

The first academic stop on our Monday journey was the Pentagon. The security policy of the Pentagon restricted all cell phone use at the entrance and past the gift shop. In one of our security classes we learned that different companies implement similar policies to protect company/government information.  We learned how the Pentagon changed the distribution of personnel and capabilities in response to the September 11th attacks. All the IT department was not in one area, but instead scattered in different parts of the building. This would allow the building to continue operation if part of the building is down.

Next, when visiting the 9/11 memorial in the Pentagon we discovered a specialized window that we all found intriguing. It was a window that gave off a slight yellow tent that specialized in security. This yellow tent specializes in blocking cameras from peering into the memorial. The glass was also able to withstand a shot from an M1 Abrams battle tank round. These types of glasses were scattered all over the outside of the Pentagon to protect private information.

Daniel Depuy said, “I wasn’t expecting the glass around the building to be as resilient as they were. However, what I found most interesting was the fact that the glass also blocks the ability to remotely listen form the hotel across the street.”

Tonya Herrington said, “Honestly, I’ve never given much thought to visiting D.C., but, after taking this trip, I’m glad that I did. I genuinely love all the historical buildings, monuments, museums, and learning experiences this place has to offer. Coming from a city with little public transportation, using the metro system was a fun new experience for me. It’s such a great place to visit, and I hope, one day, that I can come back and visit again.”

On Tuesday morning we started off the day by visiting the Department of Homeland Security. It was a classified setting with many restrictions. There was no signage to know that that you were at the DHS. Everyone was excited to see inside the NCCICS room, which required a higher security clearance. Making our way in, we were told to get into a single line, lock away any electronics in a locker, proceed through a man-trap, and enter a room where we were able to see another room with multiple monitors and agents sitting at different computers in front.

Everyone agreed that it was like a scene from a movie. Each screen in the front of the room told a different story, each specializing in something different that dealt with security. The first was showing traffic irregularity, the second had signatures of different types of viruses, the third a map of social media monitoring, and the fourth of weather. Jason Ellingson said, “One of the Department of Homeland Security functions is the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. They maintain a National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center where real-time monitoring of networks servicing both federal and civilian infrastructure is conducted. Most impressive was how varied the monitored sources of information were.”

After the Department of Homeland Security visit, we visited MITRE, a non-profit organization that uses its resources to benefit people. We met up with Dr. Sue Tisdale, a MITRE employee. We learned more about a specialized step-by-step infiltration method called ATT&CK, which shows a spreadsheet and explains what to look for when it comes to how a system can exploited. This information can be found at https://attack.mitre.org/.  We learned about how MITRE researchers established a method to hack a car by using the OBD2 port of a vehicle to have full control of everything in the system.

After that, we were given MacBooks and cyberattack scenarios to test out MITRE’s open source program called Caldera. Caldera is used in conjunction with ATT&CK and allows a user to infiltrate a system with just a few clicks. This testing was also in the form of a special capture the flag in which Megan Shuttlesworth, Tonya Herrington, Jason Ellingson, Mashawn Lumpkin, and Jacob Corley won and received a special prize. Megan Shuttlesworth said, “It was a great experience for MITRE to allow us to explore and compete in a competition with using their recently developed Caldera system. It was a learning experience for us all and is something we can all use in the future.”

After a free day in D.C., Daniel Brown talked about the option of getting around using scooters from rideshare programs: “During this week our class encounters a lot of different technology; the most impactful piece of technology that I encountered were the electric scooters. In Washington D.C. there was an abundance of electric scooters available through Lime, Skip, Jump, and Lyft.  Overall the way these scooters work is that you download an app, scan your driver’s license, and load money via debit/ credit card. Then you scan a QR code on the scooter to begin your trip, which is usually $0.15/minute. You can also reserve a scooter from a distance, but your trip begins at that point. Overall I really enjoyed the scooters and it made our travels around D.C. a whole lot easier.”

Bryan Cosby enjoyed the free day to explore the city’s history. “I would recommend the Jefferson Memorial and the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The Jefferson Memorial is especially worth seeing, as the Washington Monument can be seen from across the bay.”  

Thursday was the most relaxed out of all the days. We spent the day at the Capitol building and an organization called New America. At the Capitol building we got a guided tour from an assistant to Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. Austen Steger said, “New America is a think tank that uses its ideas to help the community by creating policies for education, technology, and cyber. The president of New America explained her journey to the position and how New America prides itself for being non-partisan. Our visit to New America showed us how non-profit change groups interact with the public, private, and other entities to address and resolve the situations collectively.”

On Friday we took our van to an organization called NDIA where we meet with Col. Wesley Hallman. Jacob Corley said, “I really enjoyed the talk at NDIA about military and private sector intellectual property. It was interesting to learn about how IP licensing, such as for proprietary software, will be negotiated in the future. The discussion was very informative and covered several security and information concepts.”

As our trip came to a close, our final experiences focused on giving back. We intentionally dined at a restaurant called Sakina Halal Grill because the owner has provided food for the homeless and we wanted to support that business. And on the way out of Washington, we stopped at a local homeless shelter – Sarah’s House – to donate all of the sheets, pillows, pots, dishes and everything else we had purchased for the trip.  

Overall, this experiential learning trip was a true growth experience.