School children in Alachua County, Fla., are taking lessons in code breaking to improve their literacy. The students play visual games to solve language codes and are gaining a crash course in cybersecurity as well.
(TNS) — Pasha Antonenko's next research idea dawned upon him while sifting through rows of discounted books.
At a library sale with his daughters, the University of Florida associate professor realized the same strategies used to solve the puzzles within the books were the same as deciphering codes. He then wondered whether teaching children to crack secret messages could improve their language skills.
Antonenko pitched the idea to his colleagues, and the Codebreakers project was born.
This fall, the research team will launch the new curriculum for elementary-aged children that will implement cryptography-centered games and activities.
Cryptography, or concealing secret messages with codes, has been used for thousands of years. Today, the technique is typically used for cybersecurity purposes, such as cracking computer codes.
The program will first start in afterschool programs in Alachua County for kids ages 7-10, primarily for girls and African-American children. Antonenko said reaching underrepresented populations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics was important to the group.
Antonenko said children will play visual games to solve language codes. In one scenario, a group of friends find a box in an attic that contains an encrypted message. The players must piece together what the message says by using code-breaking methods.
The researchers, including Swarup Bhunia, Herbert Wertheim, Kara Dawson and Amber Benedict, will study whether cryptography increases students' morphological awareness, or the ability to read and spell.
The group was given $956,733 by the National Science Foundation to fund their study, called "Cultivating Elementary Students' Interest in Cryptography and Cybersecurity Education and Careers."
Antonenko said kids in elementary school are at a ripe age for the study.
"The kids are taught these skills, such as what comes after the letters 'p' and 'r,'" he explained. "We use our morphological awareness to assume it's either 'e' or 'o.'"
The program will pilot in afterschool programs at Girls Place, Kids Count, the Caring and Sharing Learning School and Blue Wave After School program. The courses will take place two to three times weekly for a little over a month, and end in 2022.
Christy Gabbard, director for program development and outreach at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, said the curriculum is a chance to boost the kids' reading and writing skills while having fun.
"The Codebreakers opportunity is an engaging way for kids to increase their morphological awareness, which is a key component in literacy skills," she said.
Antonenko hopes the curriculum will be a crash course in the worlds of cryptography and cybersecurity to the students, and maybe an introduction to a future potential career. And, if all goes well, the team hopes the 15 afterschool programs will use the curriculum.
"We need more people to prepare for these fields," he said. "There's a shortage of people who can do this well."
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