What is “hacking?”
Hacking is all about curiosity, exploration, and deeply understanding how something works. Most people who
identify as “hackers” are working very hard to protect people and to make technology easier and safer
to use. Unfortunately, when most people hear or read about hacking in the news, the story is about people
using hacking to do harm, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Career-wise, people skilled in
hacking are highly sought out by companies looking to strengthen their cybersecurity. Computer security
experts are in very high demand today, and often are paid six-figure salaries.
What is a CTF?
CTFs (short for capture the flag) are a type of computer security competition. Contestants are presented with
a set of challenges which test their creativity, technical (and googling) skills, and problem-solving
ability. Challenges usually cover a number of categories, and when solved, each yields a string (called a
flag) which is submitted to an online scoring service. CTFs are a great way to learn a wide array of
computer security skills in a safe, legal environment, and are hosted and played by many
security groups around the world for fun and practice.
What is picoCTF?
There exist several other well-established highschool computer security competitions, including Cyberpatriot and USCC. These competitions focus primarily on
systems administration fundamentals, which are very useful and marketable skills. However, we believe the
proper purpose of a high school computer security competition is not only to teach valuable skills, but also
to get students interested in and excited about computer science. Defensive competitions are often laborious
affairs, and come down to running checklists and executing config scripts. Offense, on the other hand, is
heavily focused on exploration and improvisation, and often has elements of play. We believe a competition
touching on the offensive elements of computer security is therefore a better vehicle for ‘tech evangelism’
to students in American high schools. Further, we believe that an understanding of offensive techniques is
essential for mounting an effective defense, and that the tools-and-configuration focus encountered in
defensive competitions does not lead students to ‘know their enemy’ as effectively as teaching them to
actively think like an attacker.
picoCTF is an offensively-oriented highschool computer security competition that seeks to generate interest
in computer science among highschoolers: teaching them enough about computer security to pique their
curiosity, motivating them to explore on their own, and enabling them to better defend their machines.
What will my students need to know?
Minimally: how to think critically. Some familiarity with programming will be helpful, but many past
participants of picoCTF have played with no programming experience and learned some programming along the
ideal, but in no way required.
What is the role of the teacher in this competition?
During the competition, our hope is that teacher sponsors will act primarily in a facilitator role, rather
than a mentoring role. But we encourage teachers to help students with picoCTF 2018 in whatever way they see
As a teacher, can I play too?
Absolutely! Everyone is welcome. Only US middle and high school students are eligible for prizes, but we
encourage teachers (and others!) to play.
How can I keep track of how my students are doing?
You can create a classroom and invite your students to join it. In your classroom dashboard, you will be able to
see individual and aggregate progress stats. In addition, the scoreboard page will show a separate ranking
of just your classroom members, alongside the existing public scoreboards. You may also export a
a complete CSV of student stats. See the Getting Started page for more information on this feature.
How much time should I allocate? Do students have to work at particular times?
We plan to have a range of challenge difficulties. Students will be able to log in at any time and spend as
much or as little time as they like during the two weeks. We also expect to keep the site running after the
competition so students can continue learning after the competition is over.
Do student compete individually or in teams?
Each student will register individually. Afterwards, they can compete individually or form teams of up to 5
What software do students need?
The competition can be done with just a web browser, but an SSH client (e.g. putty) can be helpful. Students
are free to use other tools as well.
Is there informational material I can use to advertise this at my school?
Of course! You may download and print our brochure and flyer. Be sure to write in your name and information in the blank on
the flyer so students know who to talk to to get involved.
I’m still a bit confused…
No problem! Feel free to contact us and we would be
happy to clarify anything for you.