UCF student Carlos Beltran and his team of 15 computer enthusiasts spend about 20 hours a week working to keep computer systems safe from hackers.

UCF’s Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition Team meets two nights a week and all day on Saturdays to practice against cyber attacks. That’s in addition to all their classes and other extracurricular activities. This is one dedicated group.

Things get intense during their practice sessions. The jargon flies as students click away on keyboards while Beltran tries to distract them by barking other instructions—such as to create a website or set up a group email for a client. A few states away, an infiltrator is trying to break into their systems. The team reacts and races to secure the network before the hacker can do any damage.

“We try to recreate a corporate environment here and simulate what their IT people face in the real world,” Beltran said. “It’s great practice and gets us ready for competition.”

The hard work has paid off. After being in existence for only a year, the team placed first in the Southeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition and 10th in the nation last year. The competition sponsors included the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Deloitte, Dell, Splunk, Walmart, Boeing, Juniper and McAfee among others.

“Their dedication, professionalism, and teamwork is exceptional,” said faculty sponsor and computer science lecturer Thomas Nedorost. “They are passionate about what they are doing and it shows.”

The team is gearing up for a new season, which begins March 8. If it wins the preliminary and regional rounds, it qualifies for another run at the national title in April.

“It’s exciting,” said Beltran who is majoring in Information Technology with a minor in Secure Computing and Networking. “I love this stuff.”

To see a video about the club click here.

Beltran and several others founded the Collegiate Cyber Defense Club in 2012 with the goal of fostering an information security-aware generation in Central Florida. While they focus on competition, they also host weekly meetings to education the general public.

From recent attacks against Target and Nieman Marcus, where credit card and other personal information was stolen, to basic risks such as not securing your Wi-Fi connection at home, the team tries to educate the public by dropping the jargon and offering tips for the average person can use.

“Technology has become a quintessential part of our everyday lives,” said Heather Lawrence, who joined the club after attending one of the meetings last year. “People use a credit card at a grocery store or to pay bills. Perhaps they shop online from time to time. You are just a Social Security number away from having your identity stolen. A mere nine digits. Computers can grant access to very sensitive information and it is in everyone’s best interest to take measures to protect that data.”

It’s a message all members take to heart. The students prepare detailed presentations based on extensive research they do outside of class. Keeping the information accessible to everyone is a top priority for members. The club meetings typically draw 60 to 100 students each week.

“If I can get one person to know something that’s going to help them stay secure, that’s good,” said Kevin DiClemente, a junior computer science major who has an internship lined up with Microsoft this summer. “Simple things like when you are on a site and you see http:// make sure there is an s after the http, otherwise it’s not a secure connection. If it’s not a secure site, anyone can just pluck the information you are broadcasting, he said.”

The students say they get a lot out of the time they invest in the club meetings and the competition team. One big benefit is the opportunity to network with potential future employers.

Security professionals from Grooveshark, Raytheon and Protiviti among others have presented to the club. Beltran said he’s currently scheduling additional industry speakers for this semester.

“When companies reach out to us, they tell us they love what we are doing, because we’re keeping it real,” Beltran said. “We’re creating a generation of security experts to prevent the kinds of attacks we’re seeing today. The bad guys, they’ll keep trying to hack, but we’ll keep learning and defending.”