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King University News :: King’s Cryptology Course Offers Opportunity to Study Art of Codebreaking

While math majors will certainly be captivated by the non-traditional Mathematics course, King’s Cryptology class is an increasingly popular option for non-math majors needing to fulfill their math requirements. 

“Cryptology is the science of secret writing such as devising codes and cracking codes,” said Dr. Andrew Simoson, professor of Mathematics for King.  “The math used in cryptology is called number theory.  Many of the successful codes used in security systems are based upon readily understandable mathematical concepts such as clock arithmetic and prime integers.  As such, our King College cryptology course is an ideal core course option for our students.  We use real mathematics in a fun way to make and break secret messages, all the while learning about basic security ideas used throughout communication networks - from checking out at the grocery store to protecting our accounts in business transactions.”

A freshman level course with no course pre-requirements, Cryptology was designed to be a non-traditional mathematics course.  Many students choosing to take the course may not have an extensive math background or they might plan to major in mathematics. 

“All students, whatever their discipline, will learn and have fun in the process,” said Dr. Bill Linderman, professor of Mathematics for King.  “Cryptology is an accessible course.  Many math courses are preparing students for the next level of math.  For students who only plan to take one or two math courses, Cryptology is a perfect option.  Students see a variety of techniques along with practical applications; it is enjoyable and they are learning something new. 

“The course initially came by way of a King College alumnus, Tom Barr, who wrote the textbook we use, ‘Invitation to Cryptology.’” said Linderman. 

“About twenty years ago, Tom turned his lecture notes for an undergraduate cryptology course into a popular textbook published by Prentice Hall,” said Simoson.  “We have proudly used his text for approximately ten years at King College.  One semester, Tom took a sabbatical and taught the cryptology course at King.  Students loved him and his mathematics.”

Tom Barr graduated from King College in 1979 with a double major in Mathematics and Physics, and then went on to earn his Ph.D. in Mathematics from Vanderbilt University.  For many years, he served as professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Department for Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.  Currently, he is the managing partner for Entreventures Consulting LLC, which provides consulting services on strategy and operations for entrepreneurial ventures based in bioscience, engineering, information technology, and other scientific areas. 

“While performing research for the textbook, it was wonderful to immerse myself in mathematical literature and with practitioners of the art of Cryptology,” said Dr. Tom Barr.  “Since first published, the textbook has been utilized at many colleges and universities not only across the United States but also around the world.

“It is my belief that everyone has mathematical abilities,” continued Barr.  “It is unfortunate, particularly in the United States, that many people are conditioned early in life that math is not for everyone.  Cryptology opens up an artful and creative side of mathematics to which many can relate, whether or not they believe they may be a math person.”

The art and science of encryption has been used throughout history.  The course begins with a historical overview of encryption techniques that have been used throughout history.  Encryption techniques have also been used during war time throughout the ages.  Some of the first mentions of the use of encryption are in the Bible.  New techniques for encryption are always being developed to prevent the transfer of classified information from getting into the wrong hands. 

“Typically, many may not initially think of a math course as being fun, but the course is quite engaging and the students who have taken the course love it,” said Linderman.  “Math is also not typically associated with creativity.  However, Cryptology is basically all pattern recognition where one is trying to disguise something.  There are many mathematical techniques that can be utilized during encryption.  You do need creativity to do something in a clever way.”

After students learn techniques of encryption, they are given chance to decode messages and put into practice the techniques they have learned.  Students also have opportunities to encode messages themselves. 

Students from a variety of majors other than mathematics have taken the course; particularly both history and political science majors have shown interest, as well as students minoring in Security and Intelligence Studies.  They are able to relate encryption to their own fields of study in areas such as war-time encryption methods.  Other fields that easily relate to Cryptology include business and technology and of course more advanced levels of mathematics. 

“Students, who are studying mathematics and are interested in careers in the federal government such as the National Security Agency, would definitely benefit from taking a course in encryption methods,” said Linderman.  “There is a high demand for mathematicians within federal agencies. 

“I have had great success with students who have taken the course, they really seem to enjoy it, and it is a fun course,” said Linderman.  “If students are only going to take one math course at King, this is definitely one to consider.” 

Tom Barr gives this advice to students who are considering embarking on the mathematical exploration of Cryptology, “Enjoy this experience; enjoy what you will be doing in this course.  This is an opportunity to embrace; take the risk.  You will be amazed at the rewards.”