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CryptoClub makes math fun by teaching students to crack codes

Cracking secret codes can be a lot of fun: Little Orphan Annie’s decoder ring may have kept plenty of backyard bad guys at bay. It’s also often no laughing matter: Julius Caesar used ciphers to protect his correspondence. Julian Assange unlocked databases that few people were meant to see.

Today, cryptography – the science of making and breaking secret codes – perhaps plays a more critical role than ever before in our society because we live in a computer-based world. Whether you’re transferring your earnings to your community bank or logging in to Facebook,  you need to be sure your money and the pictures of your nephew’s bar mitzvah end up in the right hands. Encryption ensures that safe digital passage.

Cryptography is fun. It can also be high-stakes. And it requires sharp problem-solving skills – exactly the kind the Common Core State Standards are now requiring students to have.

At the Learning Sciences Research Institute, UIC professors Janet Beissinger and Bonnie Saunders are harnessing the allure of secret codes to teach middle-school students essential math and critical-thinking skills. While they may not be setting out to create future hackers, Beissinger and Saunders are working to engage students who might otherwise find math boring, and to prepare them to work and thrive in a 21st century, digital world.

They are the developers and researchers behind CryptoClub, a popular program that thousands of students in classrooms and after-school programs around the globe are using to supplement their regular math lessons.

CryptoClub draws on years of work that suggests that the skills used to code and decode messages also help middle-school students grasp key mathematical concepts and sharpens their problem-solving skills.

It’s more than unscrambling letters or shifting the alphabet around. Cryptography requires mathematics such as multiplication, division with remainder, common factors and large prime numbers. It also requires coders and decoders to create and find patterns, which requires a deeper level of thinking.

“A lot of times kids think math is all figured out, that there is nothing new,” Saunders said. But students learn that modern-day cryptography techniques have spurred new research into mathematics topics such as efficient ways to factor large numbers.

In cryptography, there is always something new. “Sometimes, the kids even teach me something,” Saunders said.

The project began as a curriculum, developed by Beissinger and retired UIC mathematics professor Vera Pless, one that many students and teachers found fun and engaging. But under pressure to meet growing state and federal standards, teachers found that they had little time to incorporate it into their lesson plans.

When Pless retired, Saunders joined the team, and she and Beissinger reconfigured the program to fit into after-school settings. Today’s version is funded by a five-year, $2.6 million-grant by the National Science Foundation.

CryptoClub still offers the original textbook, which anyone can use to teach herself cryptology. It now also offers a handbook and a website that helps teachers and students create their own secret messages. Students can use a classic decoder wheel to solve puzzles. They can also use the site to help them create treasure hunts to follow in real time, or use it for joke boards or comics. The comics, developed by UIC art professor Daria Tsoupikovia, highlight some of the historical connections to cryptography. One comic, for example, describes how Mary, Queen of Scots communicated by code until her messages were cracked and she was beheaded for treason.

CryptoClub also offers professional development so that anyone in after-school settings can bring the program to their students.

Beissinger and Saunders have also begun work on the next phase of their research. Students in CryptoClubs will create online tutorials that explain their solutions to mathematics and cryptography problems using iPads and screen-capture software. By evaluating these tutorials, the researchers will be looking at whether and how students are understanding the mathematical concepts behind encryption, as well as the role of digital technology in the process.