Fifteen students and Computer Science Professor Deepak Kumar recently traveled to the National Cryptologic Museum, located in Fort Meade, Maryland, as part of the Emily Balch Seminar “Secret Code.” The seminar focuses on the evolution of codes and code breaking starting from the earliest ciphers in Ancient Egypt, to the modern uses of codes and ciphers in everyday life.
“The museum, with its rich collection of artifacts, and docents who are retired NSA codebreakers, brought to life the evolution and use of secret communications and their relevance in shaping key historical events,” says Kumar. “I was very pleased that the students and tour guides engaged with one another in a very meaningful way and that the students asked several probing questions that showed how deep their knowledge of the subject matter was. It was an extremely meaningful and immersive learning experience.”
The group was given a 90-minute narrated tour by the museum’s curator, Patrick Weadon. As part of their tour, the group heard a presentation on the role of women in cryptologic history. Among those featured in the presentation was Julia Ward ’23, Ph.D. ’40, a former dean at Bryn Mawr who later joined the National Security Agency (NSA) and was inducted into the NSA’s Hall of Honor in 2002.
The tour also included presentations on the role Native American code talkers and cryptography played in the Pacific theater during World War II and interactive presentations in which students got to see the World War II German Enigma cipher machines and the The British and American Bombe machines that were used to break the Enigma codes.
The Emily Balch Seminars introduce all first-year students at Bryn Mawr to a critical, probing, thoughtful approach to the world and our roles in it. These challenging seminars are taught by scholar/teachers of distinction within their fields and across academic disciplines. They facilitate the seminars as active discussions among students, not lectures. Through intensive reading and writing, the thought-provoking Balch Seminars challenge students to think about complex, wide-ranging issues from a variety of perspectives.
About “Secret Codes”
The history of humankind is punctuated with the use of secret codes. They have decided the outcomes of battles and led to deaths of kings and queens. Through a tour of the history and use of secret codes this course introduces students to the evolution of codes and code breaking starting from the earliest ciphers in Ancient Egypt to the modern uses of codes and ciphers in everyday life. Along the way students will learn about the intricacies and implications of secret/codified communication, cryptography, cryptanalysis, and our current issues of security (of online purchases), privacy (involvement in social media), and how these manifest themselves into the locks and keys of the Information Age. Students will read, write, reflect, and participate in computer experiments relating to secret codes and code breaking. Texts will include The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh and other readings on codes and cryptography. The class will also take a field trip to the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Museum.