The secret's out

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Mike Levy taps into an online resource that challenges students to crack coded messages

If making maths interesting can often seem like an enigma, what better people than the experts at Bletchley Park to help crack the puzzle? They are offering an online resource pack for maths teachers based around the themes of ciphers and codes.

Bletchley Park is the site of Allied code-breaking during the Second World War and is the birthplace of the modern computer. It was here that a team of wartime scientists finally broke the Nazi's seemingly impenetrable code, which used the Enigma machine. According to Chris Little, head of learning at Bletchley Park: "We know from our many school visits that as soon as you mention codes and ciphers, students really throw themselves into the subject."

The online resources are aimed at teachers of students from key stage 2 to A-level. "A newly qualified teacher can pick up a pack and quickly get up to speed and start writing their own lessons," says Chris.

The resources, which are offered in 20 self-contained modules, include teachers' notes, lessons plans, pupils' work sheets, masters for overhead slides and links to related sites.

The subjects range from simple codes such as bar-codes, ISBN numbers, postcodes and Braille to the cipher used in Enigma and its big brother, Lorenz.

Chris says the resources can be used to challenge pupils of high ability and much of the material relates to issues that are currently in the news.

He cites Module 10, Public Key Cryptograph - a subject that's a key element in internet security. The challenges of that module are designed for KS4 gifted and talented high-achievers or A-level students.

Then there's Module 6, Genetic Fingerprinting. Pupils are challenged to calculate the mathematical proof that a genetic match has actually been found. At the other end of the scale, Module 1 is on Substitution Ciphers and is suitable for mainstream Year 7 or high-achieving Year 56.

The teaching notes tell you that pupils will start with a simple Caesar cipher, where letters in a word are substituted for others.

Lesson plans guide teachers through classroom discussion, pair work, problem-solving and analysis. Pupils are asked to crack the "Martian alphabet" and work out how many substitution ciphers can be found for our 26-letter alphabet (the answer's 400 million, million, million, million).

The material has been designed to provide a gentle introduction to frequency analysis. Pupils are given the challenge of deciphering coded messages and understanding the principles of ciphers.

"This and the semaphore module helps pupils get interested immediately - teachers have reported that pupils find them fun to solve and they fit well into the KS2 curriculum", says Chris.

The materials come with a good pedigree: funded by Gatsby Technical Education Projects, the resources have been developed by a team led by Professor David Burghes of the University of Exeter's Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching.

The team includes academics, teachers, LEA advisers and Government Communication Headquarters mathematicians, and is currently developing more interactive resources which promise to make the subject even more exciting - and that's no enigma.


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