Game On! MITRE Interns Hone Skills Through Competitions

November 2019
MITRE Intern Competitions
Two interns working together in front of their computers.

Interning at MITRE isn't all fun and games—but some of it certainly is.

To come up with novel solutions to hard problems, sometimes you've got to think with a more playful mindset. Plus, we know that one of the best ways to put new knowledge to the test is by putting it into action.

That's why each summer, MITRE engineers organize competitions to provide opportunities for our interns to experiment with new technologies, try out new skills, learn from their mistakes, and collaborate with their peers. It's all part of our commitment to STEM education and Student Programs.

Thinking Like a Hacker

The Summer MITRE hACKathon, also known as SMACK, is a perennial favorite among MITRE interns. Cybersecurity engineer Gabby Raymond, a former intern herself and one of the hackathon organizers, says, "We see the hackathon as a means of providing interns with a way to experiment and innovate—in the same manner we encourage our full-time staff to innovate."

This year, over a dozen intern teams battled throughout a July night on one of these challenges:

  • Create a game for one of MITRE's ongoing projects that can be used for education or research.
  • Design a prototype so that users with the widest range of abilities can use the product in the broadest range of situations.
  • Develop an app that uses blockchain technology in the trade of cryptocurrencies.

The next morning, the judges awarded prizes for the technical difficulty, innovation, impressiveness, and ambition of the projects.

Intern Emma Spinale, a junior from the University of Richmond, thoroughly enjoyed the event. "Even though I was on a game development team and didn't have any experience with those languages, I was excited to learn in such a fun and collaborative way." 

Modeling Solutions in Real Time

The 3D Printing Challenge—now in its third year—encouraged students to experiment with this evolving technology by highlighting how it can provide solutions to real-world problems.

Led by MITRE's Kevin Hansen and Lilia Chan, participants' creations were in response to one of three challenge prompts: miniature satellites, adaptive tools, or robotic claws. This year the event was a six-week program, split into two-week-long sprints. Almost 50 interns across our Bedford, Massachusetts; McLean, Virginia; Clarksburg, West Virginia; and Rockville, Maryland, sites participated in the challenge this year.

Cortland Johns, a senior at University of Oklahoma, used the 3D Printing Challenge as an opportunity "to develop new design skills and expand my solid modeling expertise."

Finding Hidden Risks

One of the most time-intensive intern competitions was the eCTF (embedded Capture-the-Flag) event. Now in its fifth year, it's an eight-week competition that requires a 20-percent time commitment from interns. It's also the only MITRE intern event with non-MITRE participants. Four teams competed: three from MITRE and one from a partner organization, Riverside Research in Beavercreek, Ohio.

Run by MITRE's Dan Walters and Brian Marquis, the competition focuses on embedded security. But the organizers note it takes a lot more than expertise in that specific area to succeed. The challenge requires a diverse set of technical skills, a team that works well together, a lot of planning, a good strategy, and a ton of effort. 

Walters adds, "The process of making design decisions—that tradeoff between security and practicality under a tight timeline—is something that reflects a very common real-world challenge. We think all participants walk away with some useful lessons, regardless of their score."

Learning Offensive Tactics in a Safe Environment

A one-day capture-the-flag competition, known as Cyber Operations Red Team Exercise—CORTeX—was held in July. Designed to cultivate students’ skills and awareness in offensive cyber operations, it also provided a safe training environment to experiment with different operations and observe the results.

MITRE cybersecurity engineer Sean Pagano says, "Most interns have an idea of what offensive cyber operations look like theoretically but have no hands-on keyboard experience. We designed CORTeX to be an environment where participants could make mistakes free of any real-world consequences."

Prior to the event, MITRE staff gave presentations in several areas, including forensics, reverse engineering, and network traffic analysis. This gave the interns some basic foundational knowledge in areas helpful to the competition.

Intern Madeline Long, a senior from Norwich University, raved about the event. "The CORTeX CTF competition was awesome. There were several different challenges, and I learned a ton!"

by Kay M. Upham

Note: In addition to MITRE staff named above, these events were the result of hours of planning by organizers Kyle Anthony, Tobin Bergen-Hill, Jessie Buonanno, Deborah Ercolini, Susie Heilman, Jess Julian, Jared Stroud, and Chris Tran.

Would MITRE be a good fit for your 2020 internship? Check out our Summer Development program to learn more!