During CentreTerm, a three-week January term that gives students the opportunity to explore unique topics and faraway places through immersive courses, Ellen Swanson, assistant professor of mathematics, taught the course Breaking the Code. First-year students discussed the techniques of encrypting and decrypting secret messages throughout the years, mainly focusing on the World Wars.
“Breaking the Code was fundamentally a cryptography course,” Swanson said. “We viewed this topic through various disciplinary lenses. When discussing the details of actually encrypting and decrypting messages, we explored how mathematics is the underlying principle.”
Swanson said the students were already familiar with most of the mathematic principles used and had revelations of how the techniques were used to, essentially, break the code.
“In order to understand the importance of secret messages and how to break them, we studied history, and in particular we focused on World War II,” she added. “Through these studies, we discussed the prejudices and how those impacted the technological feats that ultimately have impacted the world as we know it. We ended the course discussing future directions of cryptography, in particular quantum cryptography, which incorporates physics concepts.”
As a first-year seminar course, Swanson’s goal was to make students aware of the interdisciplinary nature of many topics, as well as strengthen their communication and research skills.
“I ultimately wanted the students to have an appreciation for how useful mathematics is and how big of an impact it has had historically,” she explained. “Ultimately, the World Wars probably would not have turned out the way they did without the mathematical developments. In addition, I hope the students gained an appreciation for the many layers, viewpoints and discipline relevant to a single topic.”
by Kerry Steinhofer
February 13, 2019