Math duo wins back-to-back titles at CryptoRally

November 7, 2013

ASU seniors Zahra Hussaini and Patrick Murray defended their CryptoRally championship title, Nov. 2, on the Tempe campus, leaving the other teams far behind. Both are dual majors in math and physics, and credited their pre-competition preparation for giving them the edge in the annual code-breaking competition, hosted by the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

“Both Thursday and Friday evenings we spent reviewing the different kinds of ciphers that might be included and programming our calculators,” said Hussaini. Calculators are allowed, but no computers or smartphones, according to the CryptoRally rules. CryptoRally Back to Back Champions Zahra Hussaini and Patrick Murray Download Full Image

Murray conceded that this year’s ciphers were a bit more challenging than last year’s. “We were glad we had our (calculator) programs ready, which helped with some of them. But there were a couple that we really had to spend some time on.” Murray and Hussaini finished the rally in just over two hours, well ahead of the next closest team.

Twenty-nine teams competed in the third annual competition. Coming in second place was the team of junior Gene Silva and senior Louis Wilson, who also placed last year. Finishing third were seniors Grant Marshall and Daniel Howe.

For the first time, this year’s competition included a "junior" division for middle school students who had been studying cryptography and practicing their deciphering skills. Eight middle school teams competed. Susanna Fishel, associate professor of mathematics, led a before-school club at a local middle school to help get the kids interested in cryptography.

Fishel was thrilled with how the young pre-teens performed at their first rally. “We wanted to show middle school students some mathematics they wouldn't ordinarily see until some time in college: modular arithmetic and inverse functions, for example. They did beautifully on the math part. All the kids had a great time.”

The CryptoRally is designed by Nancy Childress, associate director, who teaches cryptography. The School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences has hosted the CryptoRally event for the past three years.

Cryptography, the science of making and breaking codes and ciphers, is an important field of study today, according to Childress. “Cryptography helps to protect personal, financial, proprietary and defense-related information. Among many other things, it is used in internet commerce and in communication devices, such as mobile phones and cable boxes. Modern cryptology relies on ideas from number theory, abstract algebra and discrete mathematics. A good background in these subjects is essential for anyone who wants to understand how modern cryptosystems work.”

After the rally competition, an enthusiastic audience of students and faculty attended the featured lecture delivered by Lawrence Washington of the University of Maryland. In Cannonballs, Donuts, and Secrets: An Introduction to Elliptic Curve Cryptography, Washington described how elliptic curves have become very important in cryptography.

The CryptoRally event included a student poster session, which was judged by featured lecturer Lawrence Washington and Andrew Bremner, professor of mathematics. The author of the winning poster was Miles Laff, a dual mathematics and computer science major, who studied Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange.

The event was again sponsored by Apriva, a secure mobile communications company based in Scottsdale, Ariz. Chris Spinella, CEO of Apriva, is an ASU alumnus and says he completely supports these types of events. “As a local businessman, I rely on the intellectual capital ASU provides for attracting talented employees. Twenty-seven percent of my employees have attended ASU and we do a lot of work with the U.S. intelligence community in the area of sending classified data which, of course, involves cryptography. The CryptoRally is a great way for our company to support the work ASU is conducting in cryptography and help ensure that the next generation of ASU-trained mathematicians and scientists are well prepared to successfully enter this rapidly growing field.”

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


Sustainability and success: Teaching with technology

November 7, 2013

Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability faculty is integrating technology to deliver real-world experiences to their students.

Such classes as Sustainability Leadership and Social Change, Sustainable Cities, Sustainable Urbanism and International Development and Sustainability allow faculty to engage with students, colleagues and international partners through technology. Download Full Image

“Technology can bring the class to the outside world, instead of taking the outside world to the class,” says David Manuel-Navarrete, an assistant professor in the School of Sustainability and a senior sustainability scientist in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. “The balance of power within the class is altered; the instructor is no longer a purveyor of information, and the students are not just the consumers of the information. Instead, it becomes a process of co-production.”

Types of technology

Faculty from the school and throughout ASU receive positive feedback from students about their innovative, interactive approach to teaching, including some of the following examples:

VoiceThread: a free cloud application that allows professors to upload lessons and documents to discuss with students via microphone, webcam, text, phone or audio.

Skype: an often-free way to chat with international students via phone or video call. One sustainability professor conducted lectures and discussions with Delhi students, projected on large screens.

Vidyo: a software-based video conferencing tool that can run on existing hardware. Not only do professors use it in class, this environmentally friendly option also enables them to connect remotely with colleagues, saving time and gas.

Blackboard: a web-based tool used by many ASU professors for online and hybrid courses. It provides discussion boards, calendars, quizzes and tracks student progress.

Think before you leap

Trying one or more of these technologies can be daunting at first. But taking it one step at a time and establishing a back-up plan makes the process an easier, more successful transition.

“Use technology in a meaningful way – be conscious and clear when choosing the types of technology,” says Arnim Wiek, a senior sustainability scientist in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and an associate professor in the School of Sustainability. He is simultaneously teaching ASU and German students using technology. “We shape the technology. In an educational setting, ask yourself, ‘Why would I use this technology?’”

Dan Childers, also a senior sustainability scientist and professor, collaborated with Kurt VanLehn from the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering to use a modeling software called Dragoon to effectively teach fundamental ecosystem concepts. Childers says there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to using technology to educate.

“I think we should not be afraid of technology,” he says. “Students tend to be more keen on and capable of using it. There is no common solution that could or should be implemented in each pedagogical situation.”

Partner with students

Sometimes, even including students in the decision-making can lead professors to the right type of technology. Jason Kelley, a lecturer in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, implemented VoiceThread in his courses to introduce lectures and discussion topics. He then asked the students to evaluate the software at the end of the semester.

“Don’t be afraid to try out new things,” he says. “Experiment with the students; tell them that you’re going to try a new tool, and that you want their candid open feedback.”

Oftentimes, using technology in the classroom or online can mean more time and work, but positive, impactful learning outcomes make up for it. In Rimjhim Aggarwal’s Sustainable Development in Action course, students from ASU and Delhi filmed their own short documentaries exploring urban environmental justice issues in their respective communities. Then, the videos were shared with each set of students and discussed over Skype.

“Rather than exploring culture through abstract terms, the students could observe culture through the lives of people,” says Aggarwal, a senior sustainability scientist and an associate professor in the School of Sustainability.

Have fun while learning

Sander van der Leeuw, former dean of the School of Sustainability and United Nations Champion of the Earth, says technology can make education more enjoyable.

“Please experiment with all of these technologies,” he says. “Because after all, not only is technology efficient, but also a lot of fun.”