Puzzles used to ignite interest of students at Cryptologic Museum’s STEM Fest event

Abigail Verney, 7, of Pasadena watches a demonstration of the machinery of a replica of the German Enigma, which was used to send tactical messages in World War II. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

Figuring out the six-digit combination that opened a locked briefcase was one of the challenges presented at the “Training Mission–Cyber Security” scavenger hunt held Nov. 10 during “Bringing STEM To Life” at the National Cryptologic Museum.

The museum was one of 200 organizations that participated in the second annual Maryland STEM Festival, which began Nov. 4 and ended Sunday.

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“The mission of the festival is to encourage all students — regardless of experience level, location or background — to take a greater interest in STEM, with the hope that they will pursue a STEM-related career,” said Phil Rogofsky, volunteer director of the festival. “We see this as necessary for Maryland to remain a major, successful player in the changing world economy.”

Hundreds of children participated in six activities at the museum to test their skills in math and logic as part of the scavenger hunt. At each activity, the children collected information and clues that introduced them to the challenges faced in cyber security. They also had to solve a logic puzzle to deduce and decipher the correct combination to a brief case — much like the cryptologists at the National Security Agency decipher codes.

By using 8-year-old Siana’s Kabria combination, an NSA employee was able to open the briefcase. She gave the youngster a Z-Card, which provided additional brainteasers and information about NSA careers.

“I think it was fun trying to open it,” Siana said. “It was cool trying to figure out the answers.”

For the second consecutive year, the National Cryptologic Museum has participated in the festival. This year, more than 500 adults and children attended the two-hour event.

“STEM is a huge part of our outreach,” said Louis Leto, public affairs officer at the museum.

The scavenger hunt was sponsored by the NSA’s Math (now STEM) Education Partnership Program, which supports local schools and students in STEM fields.

The NSA is the largest employer of mathematicians in the country, according to the Math Education Partnership Program brochure.

“[Participating in the STEM festival] is an effort to get young people interested in math, science, technology and engineering,” Leto said. “We want to show kids there are a lot of different ways to apply these skills and knowledge.

“Hopefully, they will go into these fields to help our nation.”

The festival is affiliated with STEMAction, a nonprofit organization that sponsors STEM activities around the state. This year, more than 480 events were held.

Rogofsky said every one of the state’s public library branches, numerous public and private schools, the Maryland Science Center, National Aquarium, Maryland Zoo, Morgan State University, University of Maryland, and many community colleges participated. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration hosted several online events.

At the National Cryptologic Museum, about 20 NSA employees led STEM-related activities, including how to make microchips for computers and cellphones; deciphering radio signals to identify “bad guys”; how math is used in juggling; using math and critical thinking skills to stop a simulated terrorist attack; and creating bracelets using binary numbers.

A popular activity was learning how the famous German Enigma worked.

During a demonstration of the Enigma, an instructor took apart a replica and explained to parents and children how the German military used the complex machine to send tactical messages during World War II. Allied cryptologists, however, eventually deciphered the messages and shortened the war by two years.

“I like how they made the passwords,” said Zachary, 9, of the Enigma.

He came to the event with his 6-year-old sister Lalia and father Skip Purich.

“I’m trying to encourage them to get interested in technology,” said Purich, a West Laurel resident. “I think there is definitely a need for math and science skills for future jobs. Hopefully, this will lay the foundation for them to enter those fields.”

Staff Sgt. Martina Garcia of the 704th Military Intelligence Brigade helped her 7-year-old son Patrick create a trihexaflexagon out of paper, which consists of 18 equilateral triangles. When folded into a hexagon, it reveals three different sides.

An NSA employee who led the activity said making a trihexaflexagon has “advanced math behind it, called topology.”

“But we are making simple shapes that show kids the math behind simple projects,” she said.

Garcia said Patrick enjoys working with computers.

“If it has anything to do with STEM, I try to encourage him,” she said.

Patrick said he wants to be a chemist when he grows up.

“I like science,” he said. “You can discover brand new things.”

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