The Secret (Code) for Getting Kids Excited About Engineering

CWC News
Friday, October 7, 2016
San Diego, CA
The Secret (Code) for Getting Kids Excited About Engineering

San Diego, Calif., Oct. 7, 2016 — You can find publications written by Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Pamela Cosman in the IEEE Transactions on Information Theory, the International Journal of Computer Vision and, as of this past May, in the children’s section of the UC San Diego bookstore.

Cosman, who specializes in data compression and image/video processing at UC San Diego, was inspired to write a fictionalized chapter book for children about the basics of error-correction coding after she presented a demonstration of some basic techniques to her son’s second-grade classmates years ago.

“The kids were really excited about it and wanted to make up more codes, so I gave them a sheet with sample problems for fun,” recalls Cosman, who is now the Associate Dean for Students at the Jacobs School of Engineering. “My son told me they spent the rest of the day coming to him to check their answers.” 

Cosman spent her free time the next year writing the first draft of what would eventually become “The Secret Code Menace,” the story of three friends -- Sara, Daniel and Jared -- who use their own secret code to communicate with one another, and must devise a way to protect their secret messages after one is tampered with. Although the examples of coding and erasure correction techniques in the book are derived from the examples she shared with her son’s class, Cosman says, “it wasn’t a good book back then because I think I was writing it like a technical book, with no dialogue.” 

She subsequently dropped the project for a decade while she worked full-time as a professor and raised her four sons, who are now 13, 19, 23 and 24. After getting feedback on the draft from a children’s writing group and editors, she revamped the novel to make it more appealing for children ages 8-12. In one chapter, for example, the children take part in an engineering-themed birthday party where they compete to build structures from uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows -- an idea inspired by the engineering-themed birthday parties Cosman hosted for her own sons, whom she says are “all technically minded.” The book – which was bought by the British publisher, Ransom -- also includes several allusions to the trials and tribulations of the “tween” set: pesky siblings and “frenemies” among them.

Cosman says it was also important to her to provide examples of how error-correction coding works in the “real world,” but she didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the book (which ends with a dramatic bank robbery and hostage crisis) with a whole lot of didactic “lecturing.” She solved the problem by including an appendix that includes examples of channel coding as well as coding techniques such as block codes, repetition codes, Hamming codes and error-correction concepts like minimum distance and interleaving.

“A lot of people don’t know what an electrical engineer does,” says Cosman. “Everyone has a cell phone but they don’t know how it works. People need to have exposure early on to these things, and a lot of times that exposure is not done in a fun, friendly way. Although this book covers just a little piece of how it all works, I hope kids read it and find engineering to be fun, accessible and intriguing.”