Most of the conversation at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association (ECEDHA) 2018 Conference and ECExpo focused on hardware, software, firmware, giga-this, femto-that, and all the cool applications that these things enable. That was to be expected.
What was unexpected was the introduction of a children’s book written by Dr. Pamela Cosman, professor of electrical and computer engineering and former associate dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California San Diego. ECEDHA distributed copies of her new book, The Secret Code Menace, during Dr. Cosman’s keynote address on how men and women are interrupted during academic job interview presentations (an interesting topic in its own right).
Artfully disguised as a children’s adventure book, The Secret Code Menace is a light introduction to Venn diagrams, binary numbers, parity bits, error correction codes, concatenation, interleaving, and other aspects of coding theory. The plot revolves around siblings Sara and Jared Felton and their cousin Daniel, who use paper note passing and hand signals to send each other information (“Meet at lunch,” “You are a pest”) in the form of binary digits. Sometimes a sabotaged digit results in trouble (“Come over to my house” becomes “Create a spitball diversion”), so the students implement ways to detect such inaccurate transmissions.
The story includes enough familiar situations (an annoying little sister, a birthday party) to keep the intended reader engaged, and the coding theory becomes more sophisticated as the book progresses. Unfortunately, the students are caught in a hostage situation during a bank robbery, and they quickly learn that coded communications are useful for more than just Hamming it up at school.
The book closes with an epilogue entitled Error Correction Coding in the Real World that describes coding applications (CDs, DVDs, aerospace, military) and introduces formal notation. This is a useful bridge for the student who desires further information, and the epilogue also includes answers to a few puzzles that are embedded in the book.
Overall, The Secret Code Menace is an engaging introduction to coding theory for young readers. Dr. Cosman says the book is aimed at students from ages 8 to 11, but I believe it would appeal to students up to age 14. Most 8-year-olds would struggle to comprehend the coding theory without significant adult assistance. That quibble notwithstanding, The Secret Code Menace introduces a complex topic in a manner that is equal parts informative and entertaining. As Sara Felton would say, 1001 0111.