A team of educators and researchers are working to cultivate elementary school students’ interest in cybersecurity and cryptography, the art of making and breaking codes. The interdisciplinary research team includes Pavlo “Pasha” Antonenko, Associate Professor of Educational Technology in the School of Teaching and Learning, University of Florida; Kara Dawson, Professor of Educational Technology in the School of Teaching and Learning, University of Florida; Swarup Bhunia, Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Director of the Warren B. Nelms Institute, University of Florida; and Amber Benedict, Assistant Professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) grant totals over $956k over four years, ending in 2023. The project is titled “Cultivating Elementary Students’ Interest in Cryptography and Cybersecurity Education and Careers.”
Cryptology and cybersecurity are STEM fields paramount to national security. The practices used in these fields, like encryption and decryption, parallel skills children develop while learning to read and write. However, cryptology and cybersecurity practices, knowledge, and skills are rarely built into a traditional school curriculum.
The goal of the project is to design and implement a new technology-enhanced STEM education curriculum to engage 3rd – 5th graders, particularly girls and minority students, in cryptography and cybersecurity and STEM identity development as they make and break secret codes.
The curriculum, titled CryptoComics, is an after-school program which strategically integrates a digital comic book, apps and unplugged activities, such as painting rocks with ancient symbols and making invisible ink. It also features stories about cybersecurity professionals who are women. CryptoComics is freely available on cryptocomics.org.
So far, over 200 elementary school-age students – 73% girls – from diverse backgrounds in 16 after-school programs across the Southeastern U.S. have participated in CryptoComics. Preliminary research has found that children enjoy the curriculum, learn how to encrypt and decrypt information in different ways and demonstrate awareness of cybersecurity professions. They also transfer knowledge and skills gained in CryptoComics to real-life experiences.
CryptoComics was featured in NSF’s 2021 STEM For All Video Showcase, where the video received one of three Presenters’ Choice Awards, and was one of the top 10 most discussed projects. More than 200 projects competed in the showcase.
Dawson and Antonenko recently published an article about CryptoComics in The Conversation, “Comic book introduces kids to key concepts and careers in cybersecurity.”
More information on CryptoComics can be found at cryptocomics.org.