Many can’t help but associate maths with bad experiences at school of being made to perform endless tedious calculations and manipulate arcane algebraic expressions without really knowing the answer to the question: what is the point?
One of my favourite things to do is to convince people that mathematics goes far beyond solving equations and pages of handwritten sums and is both fascinating and relevant to everyday life.
I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this is via codebreaking. Many people enjoy a puzzle, and codebreaking (or cryptography, as it is also known) has the added romance of a rich history behind it, including the secret ciphers of Roman leader Julius Caesar, Mary Queen of Scots, the Freemasons and the Enigma code of World War II.
But few people appreciate how much mathematics lies behind the making – and breaking – of secret messages.
My Open University Mathematics colleagues Charlotte Webb, Dr Katie Chicot and I have been running codebreaking workshops aimed at 13-to-15-year-olds for Maths Week Scotland since 2019.
This week of celebration of maths takes place annually in September/October, and over the years we’ve shared our love of codebreaking at events, from the National Museum of Scotland to Mallaig High School, as well as in online workshops during the pandemic.
We decided to broadcast our not-so-secret message even further, and in 2021, thanks to a successful bid from the Maths Week Scotland Large Grants Fund, we launched ‘Code Break’ interactive app.
Hosted on the Open University’s free OpenLearn platform, the app offers participants of all ages three different codebreaking challenges: a Pigpen cipher, a Caesar cipher, and deciphering a message using Frequency Analysis.
In less than four months, since launching, it has had almost 4,500 unique pageviews.
Presented in a fun and friendly format, there is something for everyone, and plenty of replay value.
For those who are hungry to learn more, the app provides links to informal and formal Open University study opportunities.
As well as via Code Break and other free OpenLearn resources, schools across Scotland can engage with The Open University through our Young Applicants in Schools Scheme (YASS).
YASS is designed to bridge the gap for sixth form pupils between school and university, college or employment, enabling study of a university-level course in school.
From law to languages, and other subject areas in between, over 10,000 young people from 300-plus schools have taken OU modules through YASS.
It offers a chance to try a completely new subject or to build on their existing knowledge, while at the same time developing transferable skills.
Places for local authority school pupils are fully funded, with Scottish Funding Council support. Schools select and register participants, who then deal directly with the OU on their course work and assessment. YASS applications open on 25 April for courses starting in October 2022.
Unlike ciphers to be cracked, the OU’s accessible, innovative, flexible and supported distance learning opportunities are no secret.
Dr Andrew Potter is a Staff Tutor in Mathematics and Statistics at The Open University in Scotland. He has previously worked as a secondary school teacher, a lecturer in Further Education and an Open University tutor.