PLAYGROUND: Preparing Students for the Cyber Battleground

Seth Nielson
Host: Avi Rubin

Preparing students for careers in professional computer security can be difficult if for no other reason than the breadth of knowledge required today. The security profession includes widely diverse subfields including cryptography, network architectures, programming, programming languages, design, coding practices, software testing, pattern recognition, economic analysis, and even human psychology. While an individual may choose to specialize in one of these more narrow elements, there is a pressing need for practitioners that have a solid understanding of the unifying principles of the whole.

In teaching network security to graduate security students, I created the PLAYGROUND network simulation as a pedagogical tool. The primary goals were (1) provide a simulation sufficiently powerful to permit rigorous study of desired principles, (2) at the same time reduce unnecessary and distracting complexities inherent in real-life networks, and (3) enable the application of security concepts in a “from scratch” environment. Using this framework, I created a semester long, multi-stage lab for student experimentation. The lab-work provided an effective mix of a wide range of the security subfields previously mentioned and a framework for “big picture” comprehension for all of the lectures, readings, and other non-lab assignments in the course. This talk will describe the PLAYGROUND and explain the pedagogical theory behind it, as well as demonstrating some of the assignments and experiences teaching the course.

Speaker Biography

Seth James Nielson is a Principal at Harbor Labs and a lecturer in the Johns Hopkins Computer Science department. He received his Ph.D. from Rice University in 2009. For the past ten years, he has worked as a security consultant both building and analyzing computer security systems including advanced high-speed firewalls, anti-virus, intrusion detection, DRM, secure communications products, and so forth. Additionally, Dr. Nielson has consulted on projects related to the DMCA, trade secrets, code theft, wire tapping, and protecting PII.