EPFL hosts first Swiss edition of youth cryptography competition

The students were encouraged to work together and to think about the problems differently than they might in their classrooms. © 2019 Alain Herzog

The students were encouraged to work together and to think about the problems differently than they might in their classrooms. © 2019 Alain Herzog

On May 28, the EPFL School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC) and Science Outreach Department (SPS) organized the final of the first Swiss edition of the Alkindi Competition, where more than 40 secondary school students from across the country put their code-cracking skills to the test.

The Alkindi competition, which originated in France, is named after the ninth-century philosopher Al-Kindi, who is today considered to be one of the founders of cryptography – the study of codes.

The finals of the first Swiss edition of Alkindi were organized at EPFL by IC and the SPS in collaboration with French mathematics and programming associations Animath and France ioi.

“The goal of the event is to introduce secondary school students to cryptography through fun games,” said IC scientist and event co-organizer Lê Nguyen Hoang.

“Once an interest in mathematics and computer science is born, hopefully, the students will want to go further, and choose these fields for their future studies,” said SPS Director Farnaz Moser. “We’re pleased to add Alkindi to EPFL programs designed to introduce youth to topics in science and technology”.

Both Moser and Deirdre Rochat, IC Head of Communications, agreed that the first Swiss Alkindi edition was a success.

“The response has been very positive from the schools and students, who are already looking forward to the next edition,” said Rochat. “We hope to continue and grow this outreach initiative next year in Switzerland, while promoting cryptography, mathematics and computer science.”

Cracking codes against the clock

The EPFL event was the culmination of three preliminary problem-solving challenges, which students completed online. Nearly one thousand students in the 10th and 11th grades took part in the first challenge, with just 41 remaining for the final test.

Each team of two to four students – who were not required to have any prior knowledge of cryptography – worked against the clock to decode six alphabetic and numeric messages, using only pencil and paper, within two hours.

For all the challenges, the students were encouraged to work together to solve problems, and to think about those problems differently than they might in their classrooms. 

“It was hard! But it was interesting, and very fun to do, even if stressful!” said Maria Dumitru, 14, from the Terreaux school in Neuchâtel after the test was finished.

Alexandra Soldevilla, Maria’s mathematics teacher, said that while most of her students like mathematics and are curious, cryptography is a new challenge for them.

“I have found this to be a very good experience for all my students, particularly those who lack confidence in themselves and think they are less gifted in math. I generally do a lot of math competitions with my students, because it changes the classroom routine a bit. But I thought this one was great because it is very different from other competitions. It’s the students’ first time discovering cryptography, but maybe this will spark an interest for the future,” said Soldevilla. She added that she was “very, very proud” of her 16-student delegation, which included 11 girls.

“On the shoulders of giants"

While the exercises help students connect mathematics to computer science via computational thinking, the Alkindi competition also introduces youth to one of the most important applications of mathematics today: digital security.

In a presentation following the test, IC Professor Rachid Guerraoui, head of the Distributed Computing Laboratory (DCL), emphasized the importance of algorithms in modern computing by bringing his young audience on a journey through history, introducing them to the “giants” of computer science. Through the works of eighth-century mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, whose name forms the root of the word “algorithm”, to the first computer programmer Ada Lovelace and cryptanalytic pioneer Alan Turing, Guerraoui emphasized both the great potential and the risks of algorithms.

“Algorithms are doing incredible things but they have some weaknesses. To understand these weaknesses, we must study computer systems. It's a fascinating and very important field,” Guerraoui concluded.

Switzerland’s first Alkindi finalists

First place:
Team “Wolf”: Aurélien Bonvallat, Alöis Schnell, Théo Von Düring and Nicolas Brocard from the Bois Caran school in Collonge-Bellerive

Second place:
Team “MEEC”: Emma Jenni, Méloé Miorini, Claire Patuzzo and Eva-Katharina Renk from the Éorén-Terreaux school in Neuchatel

Third place:
Team “NoLiCiMi”: Lisa Aparicio, Michaël Schwendimann, Noémie De Schoulepnikoff and Claire Beauvir from the Nyon-Marens school in Nyon