CRYPTOGRAPHY AND CODING FOR KIDS
Two University of Illinois at Chicago math professors have just embarked on a not-so-secret mission: write a textbook that teaches cryptography and coding theory to middle-school students in a way that is both fun and informative.
Supported by a three-year National Science Foundation grant, Vera Pless and Janet Beissinger think they have the clues to accomplish their mission. Both have the required background.
Pless, a professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science at UIC, is author of the widely read "Introduction to Coding Theory," a relatively young branch of mathematics that deals with transmitting data across noisy channels, then recovering the message intact. Beissinger, a research assistant professor at UIC's Institute for Mathematics and Science Education, helped develop the widely used "Math Trailblazers" curriculum for grades K-5.
Cryptography and coding theory are two sides of the same coin.
"Cryptography wants to hide while coding theory wants to reveal. They're opposite," said Pless.
History records rudimentary forms of cryptography that date back to Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) with Caesar Ciphers, but credit for the modern mathematical analysis of cryptography and the development of coding theory goes to Claude Shannon, who published his work in the late 1940s.
Pless and Beissinger started teaching these concepts to youngsters a couple years ago, almost as a hobby.
"I was writing about prime numbers for an elementary text and remembered it was related to cryptography," said Beissinger. "I called Vera to see if we could develop some exercises for kids at the fourth grade level. After thinking about it, we realized this would be an excellent way for naturally curious kids to learn math."
The two professors developed games to test on kids, using the classrooms of Beissinger's children and Pless' grandchildren. "It went over very well in the schools. The kids liked it and the teachers like it," said Pless. "We began by handing out material with secret messages. We talked about historical facts in the development of cryptography, including the Navajo-language code talkers of World War II, whose code the Japanese never broke, and the legendary Beale Cipher codes for finding where Virginian Thomas Jefferson Beale buried his treasure in the 1820s."
By presenting a mystery, then showing how math can help solve it, youngsters take to the task with enthusiasm.
Pless and Beissinger have begun writing portions of the text and accompanying teacher material. With their NSF grant, they will test the course in Chicago-area middle schools over the next two years and provide instructional workshops at UIC for teachers.
The project should be completed by 2004. Versions designed for early elementary students and for use in extracurricular or museum settings are planned. A website will supplement the program so youngsters can go online and practice sending encrypted messages to each other.
"This is very timely for kids at this age," said Beissinger. "They use computers and passwords. Now they will learn about coding things for Internet use and how to keep things secret."
More than just an intellectual exercise this knowledge can lead to careers, and not just in cracking spy codes or writing computer software firewalls. Pless said cryptography plays a growing role in business security. "And if a business is going to use cryptography, they better have someone around who knows something about it."
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