Teacher breaks code on summer vacation

By Tara Munkatchy
Staff writer

Connie Cunningham, a math teacher at
Rocky Grove High School, learned the
mathematics behind cryptography at a summer
forum at Rutgers State University.

Imagine spending a lazy summer day learning about math coding and how it affects national security in ways that make "Mission Impossible" seem realistic.

Connie Cunningham of Franklin, an algebra, calculus and discrete math teacher at Rocky Grove High School, did just that.

She spent part of her sumrner in a think tank of sorts, discussing math and computer science with a group of selected teachers and researchers at Rutgers State University.

The forum was held from July 28 through Aug. 15 in the Discrete Math and Computer Science Institute on the Rutgers University campus.

"Basically, the teachers learned the mathematics behind cryptography and network security," said Elaine Foley, spokesperson for Rutgers State University. "We're hoping they will incorporate what they leamed into curriculum. It helps enthuse students in high school to not discount mathematics."

But what is discrete mathematics?

"It focuses on numbers as separate things, like statistics, fractals," said Cunningham. "It is coding codes."

"It's an area of math the National Council of Teachers and Mathematicians recommends," she said. "We're the only school in northwestern Pennsylvania that has a discrete math class. We incorporate researchers who are on the edge, so high school teachers can learn the very latest" said Foley.

Researchers who attended the workshops represented several professions such as computer science and mechanical engineering. Following a morning lecture on a varying math theme, teachers spent afternoons in discussions with researchers, completed homework assignments and utilized the computer lab.

There will be three follow-up courses during the remainder of this school year.

Some of the topics teachers faced at the workshops included the impact of quantum mechanics on cryptology, steganography, ensuring the integrity of documents online and hacking and networked terrorism.

Cunningham said the program illustrates how important codes are in our daily lives. "Everything you do ... the little card at the grocery store ... your e-mail, your bank accounts, go(ing) to the record store and ordering a record that's not in stock ... it's all coding," said Cunningham. "I learned the government is really trying to control it because of terrorists and criminals."