Preparing Boys for Life.

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Coding, Cryptography, and War
Hannah B. Turlish, History Department Chair

Last year, Upper School math teacher Katharine Hudson invited faculty to think of ways to collaborate to generate interdisciplinary lessons. As our school’s software programming expert, she was eager to help us find ways to weave it into our existing curricula. Given that I had last tried software programming in a FORTRAN class in the 1980s, I found the idea of building a U.S. history lesson with her exciting, but daunting.

Over the course of this academic year, we spent time asking each other big questions about goals and desired outcomes. As two females in male-dominated fields, we also focused on designing challenging yet achievable hands-on activities that could, as closely as possible, recreate the work of pioneering female coders during the Second World War. While breaking enemy ciphers, or cryptography, has played an important role throughout the history of war, the sophistication of the mechanized Japanese Purple and German Enigma codes make World War II a particularly opportune time to explore the science of code breaking and the legions of largely forgotten women who did the bulk of the work. 

Expanding Haverford’s software programming curriculum across disciplines will help our students understand computer science’s broad range of applications and better prepare them for whatever field they choose to pursue. An understanding of computer coding will open doors to many potential careers and pursuits for our students, while furthering our commitment to preparing boys for life.

After multiple meetings, Ms. Hudson and I went from grand plans of a week-long unit to a single one-day lesson. Better to test small, we thought, and then reflect, refine, and build in future years. In our 45-minute pilot workshop, students did not do any computer programming, but they were given several encrypted messages that as a room they had to strategically begin to decipher. As a group we discussed potential strategies and tested hypotheses. It was an exercise in role play to enrich their understanding of that point in history, and their appreciation for what wartime code breakers did certainly increased; many students got really excited to “crack the code” and felt the pressure of limited time, just as the women in the 1940s did. We felt that the lesson was quite successful and hope to expand it into a series of classes where the students will engage in several historically accurate simulations, including the coding of computers.

Expanding Haverford’s software programming curriculum across disciplines will help our students understand computer science’s broad range of applications and better prepare them for whatever field they choose to pursue. Whether doing work in the Stanford English Department’s Literary Lab (one sample project: mapping the relationships between characters in hundreds of plays, from the time of ancient Greece through the 19th century), generating “heat maps” to visually show historical or ethnographic data, or engaging in genetics-related research in biology, an understanding of computer coding will open doors to many potential careers and pursuits for our students, while furthering our commitment to preparing boys for life.