Anne Arundel Community College students Marcelle Lee of Severna Park and Dustin Shirley of Odenton had never taken a digital forensics course at the school until this past summer, but they are fast learners.
The duo recently won the community college division of the U.S. Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center (DC3) Digital Forensic Challenge, a competition that challenges students to analyze digital clues related to cybersecurity and counterterrorism.
The win marked the second consecutive academic year that a team from Anne Arundel Community College has won the international competition.
The team's success also comes on the heels of Anne Arundel being designated one of eight National Centers of Digital Forensics Academic Excellence by the Cyber Crime Center last summer.
The designation means that students enrolled in the college's digital forensics program are receiving instruction that matches the objectives the Cyber Crime Center requires of its employees.
The center handles digital evidence processing and analysis for Department of Defense investigations, and assists the department in counterintelligence, counterterrorism or criminal investigations.
The annual competition is an online contest that includes graduate school, industry and military teams. Lee and Shirley, who called themselves the "Mad Hatters," not only won their division but finished 23rd among 1,209 teams from the United States and abroad.
The competition runs for about a year, and consists of 35 exercises featuring scenarios that test competitors' ability to recover and analyze digital evidence. The contest has a running leader board, and teams move up the board as they solve problems.
Shirley said the duo checked their scores throughout the competition and were told via email that they had won — not bad for a team that didn't enter the contest until its midway point, and whose members scarcely knew each other before entering.
Lee said she heard about the DC3 Challenge after taking part in another cyber competition. Upon enrolling in the Cyber Crime Center contest, she discovered its exercises fueled her problem-solving skills.
Both Shirley and Lee signed up for a first-level cyber forensics course at the community college in the summer. After they advanced to "Cyber Forensics 2," class instructor Dawn Blanche suggested they team up for the DC3 challenge.
"Once we approached [the competition] we split up where our strong points were," Shirley said. "We were both new to the field, but we both did research on our own outside of school, and we kind of knew what we wanted to do for the challenge.
"We did as many problems as we could, because volume usually wins. As long as you're decently accomplishing the goal of the problem, you get points for it," Shirley said. "In the classroom we were learning … the fundamentals. [Later] we were doing all of our research outside the classroom and applying it to a problem. It was almost like master's-level research."
Lee said a few of the challenge questions dealt with Internet history analysis, including browsing a user's history and using cookies as evidence.
"I loved the detective aspect of that sort of work," she said. "I like to tackle new things and learn things along the way."
"They worked tirelessly up until the buzzer, to use a sports term," Blanche said. "They did research levels beyond the foundation courses."
Anne Arundel Community College is quickly establishing a record for training students with cybersecurity prowess.
During the previous school year, students Richard Clark of Glen Burnie, Dina Duncan Haines of Severna Park, London Orcurto of Bowie and Christopher Rollins of Pasadena captured first place in the competition; and a second team of Douglas Hayden of Annapolis, Robert Singleton of Arnold, Jasper Tucker of Annapolis and Carly Wyman of Crownsville took third place in the same contest.
"It is high-caliber, and I think the thing that's so key about it is that it's hands-on," said Lee of the school's forensics programs.
"You're constantly … using different tools and techniques, and there's no way you can get the same type of knowledge and experience from a book," said Lee, who noted that during classroom work, "we're solving problems and doing the same things that you would do in the DC3 Challenge competition."