The Charger Blog

Cyber Forensics Students Experience Innovative Virtual Immersion

As part of a lab, students taking an “Intro to Cyber Forensics” class participated in a virtual experience, investigating a mock crime and searching for a “missing person” while learning about cyber forensics through a fun, creative, and unique remote learning experience.

October 6, 2020

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing & Communications

Picture of lab mock crime scene
As part of a lab, cyber forensics students investigated a mock crime.

Chris Howard ’22 and his classmates recently put themselves in an investigator’s shoes, working together to find “Johnny AI,” a missing world leader in artificial intelligence technologies.

For Howard and his classmates, it was just another day in Ibrahim “Abe” Baggili’s “Intro to Cyber Forensics” class. They were not only playing a game that was fun and exciting, they were taking part in a lab, called “Bag & Tag,” using Twitch, a leading service and community for multiplayer entertainment that the University has an academic partnership with.

“The gamification of the lab was my favorite aspect,” said Howard, a computer science major. “Under the mentorship of Dr. Baggili, we frequently discuss the importance of an entrepreneurial mindset, and this lab reflects the importance of that during the COVID-19 pandemic. This lab also enabled us to make mistakes and learn from them in a controlled environment, instead of in the field post-graduation.”

Howard and his classmates remotely controlled an agent – Andrew Mahr ’22 – on a virtual crime scene. They directed Mahr, who went to the “crime scene” wearing a GoPro camera mounted onto a ski helmet. Students watched the video feed live via Twitch, and they were able to control him by giving him commands to search and seize any evidence they deemed important.

While interacting with Mahr, students got creative, analyzing the situation and deciding what to do next. When they found evidence, Mahr tagged it, bagged it, and documented it. Students then determined when evidence offered a promising lead and decided when to investigate it further.

“It was definitely an interesting way to present material, and I think it was highly effective for the students,” said Mahr, a cybersecurity and networks major. “I hope the lab taught them about the proper ways to handle evidence, as well as the importance of investigating everything as a potential piece of evidence.”

Image of Amber Marrero ’21.
Amber Marrero ’21.
‘We look forward to continuing to utilize modern technologies to aid in virtual learning’

As part of the exercise, Mahr was in audio communication with TJ Balon '18 '21 M.S., a candidate in the University’s graduate program in computer science and Dr. Baggili’s teaching assistant. Balon helped Dr. Baggili transition the experience to a virtual environment amid the coronavirus global pandemic.

“Given the importance of this lab, we wanted to ensure the students still had this experience regardless of their location,” he said. “I hope they had a great experience. As we’ve been looking through their lab reports, it looks like we had a major success and the lesson was well received. We look forward to continuing to utilize modern technologies to aid in virtual learning.”

Dr. Baggili, Elder Family Chair, founding director of the University's Connecticut Institute of Technology, and executive director of the University’s Bergami Center for Cybersecurity, says this lab is a favorite of his cyber forensics students. His goal was to conduct the lab virtually in a way that his students would find fun and engaging.

“We wanted to provide the students with a way to feel like they are actually on the scene,” he said. “Due to COVID-19, we had to get creative. One option was to show them slides on Zoom, and we thought that would be boring. Then I thought, what if we can turn it into a first-person, real-time, game?

“We ended up having the entire class – as well as students from around the world – try to guide an investigator on the scene,” he continued. “The results were really great, and the students learned by doing.”

‘We will do our best to give them a fun and interactive learning experience’

Cinthya Grajeda-Mendez '17, '20 M.S., remembers doing a similar lab when she was a student at the University. Now the University’s cybersecurity lab manager, she created and hid evidence that the students needed to find. She wanted them to learn that evidence could be hidden anywhere – not just physically, but also digitally through social media and encryption.

“I hope this lab made students feel as excited and interested in this field as I was when I did this lab as a student,” she said. “I hope it piqued their curiosity and made them realize that cybersecurity is fun. I also hope they realized that even during this pandemic, we can be creative, and we will do everything we can to give our students a fun and interactive learning experience.”

Amber Marrero ’21 was one of the students who took part in the lab. A cybersecurity and networks major, she says the activity was a great opportunity to learn about crime scene investigation while getting to be a cyber forensics agent for the day. She said it was exciting, interesting, and interactive – especially when they found Johnny AI using social media.

“All the evidence led us to a phone number in which a voice recording of Johnny AI told us to find him online,” she said. “With the help of social media, we found a Twitter account we suspected was run by Johnny AI, and one of the posts had a hint as to where he was. We had to decrypt the message to find the answer first, and we were able to find him.”