Gibbons Teaches about Codes and Cryptography

Courtney Gibbons (front row, left) with students at the All Girls/All Math summer camp.
Courtney Gibbons (front row, left) with students at the All Girls/All Math summer camp.

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Courtney Gibbons taught a course on “Codes and Cryptography” at the 18th annual All Girls/All Math summer camp at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The camp, run by the Center for Science, Math, and Computer Education, attracts high school girls from across the country. It is funded by the National Security Agency and other sponsors.

Gibbons’ intensive one-week course began with simple questions about the relationships between numbers such as, “What happens when two numbers don't share any factors other than 1?,” and ended with the mathematics behind RSA cryptography, the current standard for securing credit card information online.

Gibbons said the first day of the camp was devoted to symmetric encryption techniques, with discussions about the ways in which these are not very secure.

In order to understand the state-of-the-art RSA encryption system used by e-tail sites, the class spent several days surveying results from number theory, which is primarily concerned with results about prime numbers. The class included important results, like Fermat’s Little Theorem and Euler’s Totient Function, that most math majors don’t see until their first number theory course.

The camp concluded by tying everything from the course together by sending the girls on a mathematical scavenger hunt during which they had to encrypt clues for other groups and decrypt clues for themselves.

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