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Two Harbors native to compete as cyber warrior

Isaac Burton of Two Harbors is studying computer engineering at North Dakota State University in Fargo and will participate in the National Cyber League, a competition where students can demonstrate their cyber security skills. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Straub)

With the news filled with headlines about internet security breaches ranging from the Equifax hacking exposing the financial information of more than 140 million Americans to foreign governments attempting to interfere with U.S. elections, the need for cyber security professionals has never been greater.

Two Harbors native Isaac Burton recently began pursuing a degree in computer engineering with an eye toward a career in cyber security at North Dakota State University in Fargo. In addition to studying computer engineer, Burton will also be competing with the NDSU cyber security team in the National Cyber League later this fall. NCL was founded in 2011 to provide "an ongoing virtual training ground for participants to develop, practice, and validate their cybersecurity knowledge and skills using next-generation high-fidelity simulation environments," according to the organization website.

The students will compete in both individual and team events as part of the NCL competition. The events are highly competitive and structured like an athletic event, but the skills participating students learn don't lose their usefulness like after the game ends.

"When you think about a sport like basketball, once you've learned to play, certainly you've developed physical skills and coordination that are very valuable, but it doesn't translate directly into a skill for the workplace other than a professional basketball player," NDSU assistant professor and NCL team mentor Jeremy Straub said. "NCL is a little bit different in that the skills that are being evidenced during the competition are actually something you could stop doing in the competition one day and show up in an office building and start doing the next day."

Straub said graduates with skills in cyber security are of "critical national need" and NCL provides a way for these students to demonstrate their skills for potential employers.

Burton, a 2015 graduate of Two Harbors High School, recently transferred from Iron Range Engineering, a project based four year degree program in Virginia, to concentrate on programming and coding at NDSU.

"Immediately, I found a ton of new resources and learning opportunities and a friend just sent me an email about a meeting for NCL," Burton said. "I was like that sounds really interesting, I'm going to check it out. I learned a little bit about the competition, I said yeah, I want to do this, it sounds like a great learning opportunity."

The challenges provided by NCL offer a glimpse at problems actual cyber security professionals face every day and the must respond in real time.

"The challenges are not dumbed down, they are very realistic challenges and the only thing that makes them different from what a cyber security professional is going to see on a day-to-day basis is the fact that they are isolating them," Straub said. "In the real world, if you are responding to an attack, you don't know what kind of attack it is. NCL will let competitors know what sort of challenge they are facing. The students are competing and at the same time they are competing, they are also demonstrating these directly workforce relevant skills."

Burton's interest in programming and cyber security was developed at IRE, but the interest began as a sophomore at Two Harbors when he joined the school's Rock Solid FIRST Robotics team. He started designing parts of the team's first robot through the computer-aided design program SolidWorks and eventually started helping build some of the electronic components.

"I started learning about the different electronic parts on the robot and that was really interesting for me," Burton said. "I just loved learning about the electronics, so on my own I started trying to learn more about how the part worked down to the circuit level. Once I had figured out the motor controllers and the base driver stuff, I realized I didn't know a whole lot about programming. So in my spare time, I would go on Code Academy and look stuff up online and try to do my own little projects."

Mark Schlangen, one of the robotics coaches at Two Harbors, said Burton was a "pillar" of that first team and really invested himself in learning the skills and concepts required to build and program a robot.

"I remember there was a computer set up in my study hall with SolidWorks on it and he spent time on his own pushing himself to figure things out and took it to a great level and really driving himself," Schlangen said. "I think that exemplifies how, once the connection is made, all of a sudden they want to learn more and do more because they are pursuing something they see value in."

Schlangen said he believes robotics is a good entry point for kids to think about careers in a STEM-related field (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Robotics forces students to think creatively and to address the practical issues associated with the design of the robot.

"It's one thing to come up with an idea and think 'Oh yeah, that would work great,' but what the kids find out is it's actually another whole beast to actually build it and make it work," Schlangen said. "We can sit around and float ideas out there and think everything is great, but you have to still build it. You still have to make it work and that's a challenge, but it's a good one."

Through robotics, Burton was able to meet and work with an engineer from Telstra Airlines and do some CAD work and job shadow a mechanical engineer at Stanley-LaBounty in Two Harbors.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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