May 18, 2012
My husband volunteers at the Arizona Science Lab, a group of retired engineers who provide science workshops for middle school students. We were talking about the different classes they offer, boat building, making small solar cars, setting off rockets, etc. What I didn’t know until that day is that they also offer a class about codes. I personally had never thought about codes as a science, but it got me thinking. What could we do with codes at preschool? Very few of my students can read, so they’d be decoding a phrase that, for them, might as well still be encoded. It would be gibberish both before and after…except for the one word I knew they each could read, their own names!
I started out by planning an elaborate code based on shapes and pictures. I got about four letters done when it struck me that I was re-inventing the wheel and settled on the standard alphabet/number substitution code—you know, A=1, B=2, etc. The next morning I wrote out each of their names in code, like this:
Then I took over one of our bulletin boards and put up the code itself. I chose to use different colors to help them see that A and 1 went together. It was a variation on boxing each pair off. (And it made a very bright, eye-catching board, too. It was the only colorful part of this project.)
The first day we offered this we had about six kids try it. Here’s Presly’s effort:
We also had a reward for those who tried the code. We told them that we would send home another piece of paper for their parents to try. It would have a message from the kids to mom and dad. I’ll leave it for you all to figure out on your own.
We left this project out for three days. The second day another couple of kids tried it and on the third day no one at all. The last four or five names belonged to kids that just weren’t interested. That’s okay; maybe they were busy all morning with other valuable projects; maybe codes take a certain level of maturity and they just weren’t there yet; maybe we just didn’t make it sound exciting enough. (Gail Godwin said, you know, teaching is one-quarter preparation and three-quarters pure theater.)
However one girl surprised us by asking to do more. What else did we know that she could read? Would she like to try encoding rather than decoding? Yes, she wanted to try it! So we wrote out “Love Unicorn” (her choice) on a small piece of paper and gave her another piece with the appropriate number of lines on it. We did the first number together to make sure she understood how to do it and where to write the numbers. I’d love to report that she ended up with an encoded sheet to take home for her parents to solve. She got about halfway done and then started decoding it. So she wrote about half the numbers and all the letters. I didn’t care. It was just so exciting to see her try!