WOU Professor Creates Code-Breaking Competition

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An unscrupulous blackjack dealer helping a ring of hustlers. A race to discover the whereabouts of a deadly virus. A group suspected of hacking into a government website to steal U.S. Census data.

The fictional plots in the Kryptos Challenge were created by Western Oregon University Math Professor Cheryl Beaver and Central Washington University Math Professor Stuart Boersma. Competitors have four days to use their cryptologic and puzzle-solving skills to decipher the clues.

“The challenges are given as codes with some sort of backstory that often contains a clue for how to solve the cipher,” Beaver said. “This year, we had a backstory about a ring of hustlers in Las Vegas who were trying to cheat at blackjack. We included a picture of a hand of cards, and if you looked at how the cards were arranged, it gave you a clue to the cipher.”

Can you crack the code in this Kryptos Challenge? The competition was co-founded by WOU Math Professor Cheryl Beaver.

Sponsored by the Pacific Northwest section of the Mathematical Association of America, the code-breaking competition is for high school and college students, who can enter as an individual or team of three. The students upload their solution to the Kryptos website.

The 10th annual Kryptos competition held earlier in April had 116 students equaling 49 teams from colleges, universities and high schools in California, France, Hong Kong, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Netherlands, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington.

Beaver said the challenges don’t require any specific math skills, just an affinity for solving puzzles. “We hope students see that they can apply the mathematics they learn in a fun way,” she said. 

Before coming to WOU, Beaver worked at Sandia National Laboratories as a cryptographer. The competition has prompted students to ask Beaver more about a career in cryptography.

Regardless whether they fail or succeed in breaking the codes, Beaver said the students email her about how much fun they had participating in the competition. 

To learn more or test your puzzle-solving skills, visit Kryptos.

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