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NEWS | Jan. 27, 2021

NSWC Crane technical experts mentor college students in virtual hackathon

By Sarah K. Miller, NSWC Crane Corporate Communications

CRANE, Ind. – Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division’s (NSWC Crane) microelectronics subject-matter experts (SMEs) mentored more than 120 students in the 2nd annual HackIN hackathon. The multi-day event took place last fall and included students from seven states and six universities.

Dr. Alison Smith, an Engineer at NSWC Crane and former Co-Lead of Education and Workforce Development for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering’s Trusted and Assured Microelectronics Program, says this hardware/firmware reverse engineering cybersecurity event was unique.

“This is the only hardware reverse engineering hackathon of its kind,” says Dr. Smith. “At the inaugural in-person event, we had a regional reach. When the 2nd annual HackIN event became virtual with COVID-19 circumstances, we were able to expand the net and about triple our student participation.”

HackIN is in support of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering’s Trusted and Assured Microelectronics Program. IN3 (Indiana Innovation Institute) and Booz Allen Hamilton announced three student teams as winners of the 2nd annual HackIN hardware/firmware reverse engineering cybersecurity virtual hackathon. IN3 provided a total of $7,000 to the winning teams.

Dr. Matt Kay, theTrusted Microelectronics Chief Engineer at NSWC Crane, says microelectronics form the foundation for technical systems in both industry and defense.

“We live in a digital age,” says Dr. Kay. “Microelectronics are everywhere, from our phones, TVs, and computers. Things are getting more intelligent. You hear the term ‘trusted hardware’ which means the hardware does exactly what it is supposed to do, when it is supposed to do it, which is also tied to the term ‘resilience.’ Within the computational stack, there’s an area called ‘firmware’, which is code that instructs the hardware how to behave. Ultimately, the firmware, the hardware, and the operating system and applications running on it, all has to come together in a trusted manner for us to execute the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) mission. In the DoD, the demand for more processing and more embedded systems is growing every day. The warfighter is dependent on the lowest denominator that makes this processing possible: microelectronics.”

NSWC Crane has provided more than sixty years of support to the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Missions. Several NSWC Crane SMEs participated as mentors for the students during the event including Dr. Austin Roach, Michael Baladi, Greg May, and Jason Bowman.

Dr. Kay says that the Crane workforce’s niche expertise in microelectronics provides valuable mentoring opportunities in supporting, engaging, and recruiting HackIN participants.

“Crane’s workforce has been relied on as a critical component of supporting the nuclear deterrent; we are national technical leaders in microelectronics,” says Dr. Kay. “HackIN is a unique mentoring opportunity for students to get an introduction to the Navy workforce, why they work at Crane, and share experiences with the SMEs.”

Careers in cyber defense are increasing in demand, and preventing cyber attacks is becoming significantly important. Dr. Kay says the event was challenging, but even with the difficulty level, several students finished early.

“It was amazing to see the teams pull off and execute the challenge,” says Dr. Kay. “They engaged with the Crane mentors, captured details, and made improvements to their designs. They did a lot of hard work and the Navy should be proud. The workforce should be doing whatever we can do to support efforts like these; hopefully events like HackIN happen more often. Ensuring the Navy has a skilled and capable workforce is a responsibility shared by the entire organization.”

About NSWC Crane

NSWC Crane is a naval laboratory and a field activity of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) with mission areas in Expeditionary Warfare, Strategic Missions and Electronic Warfare. The warfare center is responsible for multi-domain, multi- spectral, full life cycle support of technologies and systems enhancing capability to today's Warfighter.

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