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.