Can cryptography help kids improve their reading and writing?

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GAINESVILLE, FLA. — Cryptography has been used for thousands of years to conceal covert messages, but researchers believe it may serve another purpose — to help children become successful readers and writers.

Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, Ph.D., associate professor of Educational Technology at the University of Florida College of Education, and a team of researchers have been awarded $956,733 from the National Science Foundation to design, test and pilot an online, mobile-friendly curriculum that will engage upper elementary students in cryptography-focused games, activities and apps. The Codebreakers curriculum will be piloted with seven- to 10-year-olds, to investigate the conditions needed to establish a technology-enhanced, visuospatial curriculum that not only improves reading and writing abilities, but also sparks an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), cryptography and cybersecurity, especially among girls and African American students in an effort to enhance diversity and inclusion.

Antonenko, who serves as principal investigator, will work alongside co-principal investigators Swarup Bhunia, Ph.D., Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering professor and director of the Warren B. Nelms Institute for the Connected World, Kara Dawson, Ph.D., professor of Educational Technology, and Amber Benedict, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor for the School of Special Education, School Psychology and Early Childhood Studies, to launch the project, titled “Cultivating Elementary Students’ Interest in Cryptography and Cybersecurity Education and Careers.”

Antonenko shared the inspiration for the project began following visits to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Alachua County Library District.

From touring the International Spy Museum’s exhibits, it occurred to Antonenko that the ways in which cryptologists decoded ciphers could be used to teach children morphological awareness, an understanding of the smallest units of language such as roots, prefixes and suffixes, which is essential in reading and writing. While at the Alachua County Library District with his children during a book sale, he also noticed his children became captivated by a book on secret codes.

“Today, there is this whole culture of hacking, and so I thought we could capitalize on that kind of intrinsic interest a lot of kids already have,” Antonenko said.

The project will be tested and implemented in several local afterschool programs, Girls Place, Inc., Kids Count, the Caring and Sharing Learning School and the Blue Wave After School program at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, which serve populations predominantly underrepresented in the fields of STEM, cryptography and cybersecurity. Expected outcomes include improving students’ literacy skills, fostering self-efficacy, heightening computational thinking, increasing career awareness and driving interest in STEM, cryptography and cybersecurity.

Bhunia, who will spearhead defining the fundamental aspects of cryptography and cybersecurity for Codebreakers, shared his observation that because young children are largely exposed to digital devices, they develop a growing curiosity for how technology works. Through early engagement, that curiosity can be cultivated into a potential lifelong passion for the field.

“Not only do you increase children’s awareness and knowledge about cryptography; you also motivate them indirectly to pursue a career in cybersecurity,” he said.

Once the curriculum is established, which is expected to occur in year two of the project, the team will broaden its impact by implementing activities in 15 afterschool programs across the country.

The project is expected to be completed in 2022.

“Our hope is (that) as kids engage in these exercises and games they will develop appreciation and understanding of cryptography and, more generally, cybersecurity, and improve their reading and writing skills,” Antonenko said.