La Jolla Elementary ‘spies’ discover codes




A group of third- through fifth-graders at La Jolla Elementary School got the chance last week to become spies for a day for their month-long project about coding and cryptology.

Some of the 75 or so youngsters even dressed the part, wearing hats and coats, sitting attentively as the presenters told them about Navajo Code Talkers and how Marines use cryptology.

The two speakers, a Marine and an educator, presented a display of real-life artifacts, such as dog tags, radios, uniforms and, of course, code books, used by Marines and Navajo Code Talkers in World War II.

Fifth-grade teacher Johanna Weber said she “worked with a parent of one of the boys in the school — her name is Jessica Young (who) suggested we apply for a grant, and we got it. Because of it, we are able to purchase textbooks and workbooks for the kids to look for academic codes, mostly for mathematics.”

The purpose of this month-long code-breaker project was to show the students how important codes are in real life, and to enlighten the students how code-breaking and cryptology contributed to historic events, she explained.

Cryptology is the act of hiding information in codes. In history, the practice of cryptology was known to have been recorded in code books, or created by patterned machinery. Nowadays, it is used in computers, security systems and even household items such as credit cards.

Marine Corps educator Joanie Schwarz-Wetter, one of the speakers, told the students that in the Navajo Code Talker’s case, the language of Navajo was used, but coded in such a way that the pattern could not be deciphered by the enemies. That helped the allies develop a secret form of communication — not even 30 people knew this coded language, she added.

“The Marines were reluctant and did not trust the code talkers at first,” Schwarz-Wetter explained. “But after the war was won, they honored the Navajo Code Talkers and said they could not have won the war without them.”

Modern code-breaker Master Sgt. Michael Todd from Camp Pendleton even broke the code of a couple of students’ projects, said Young, the mother who inspired the program.

The grant, supplied by Toshiba Co., funded the event.

Shanna McCue is a junior at High Tech High Media Arts.