Engaging students: Finding prime factorizations

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Roderick Motes. His topic, from Pre-Algebra: finding prime factorizations.

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A) How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?

 “The magic words are squeamish ossifage”

-Plaintext decode of the RSA-196 challenge in the 1994 issue of Scientific American

Prime factorizations are an interesting topic. Being that prime factorization was a part of number theory which was, for several hundred years, considered the “last bastion of pure mathematics” we can often find it a struggle to relate the problem to students. But prime factorizations have found a use very recently.

In 1977 a paper was published submitting a possible encryption algorithm for computers that takes two very large prime numbers, multiplies them, and uses this to generate a key-value pair to make your information more secure. This encryption algorithm is currently the backbone of internet data exchange.

For students you can craft an activity around this ideas, framing them as being secret agents trying to hide data, that uses a naïve version of the RSA algorithm in order to generate keys. Even if you didn’t want the RSA algorithm you could use the idea of multiplying primes to generate some kind of cipher scheme which is not complex, and then use that. Students could be put into groups for the project and given a message which is encoded, and then they need to try and break it.

Clearly it would be untenable to give the students exceedingly large numbers but as a consequence of the fundamental theorem of arithmetic you can use smaller primes and still have unique cipher keys (2*5 is a perfectly valid key in RSA, as is 5*7, you can extend things to be 2*3*2 even.) You don’t have to use RSA cryptography, but it’s a good talking point. This could be an excellent project I think, but you as a teacher would need to take much time carefully building up everything to make sure students can do it.

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B) How can this topic be used in your student’s future math and science courses?

This is a pretty difficult question for anything involving number theory but prime factorizations, as discussed above, are of particular interest to students who plan to take computer science. Understanding how things become cryptographically secure and implementation of the RSA algorithm and various cracking algorithms would not be out of place in an upper level high school comp. sci. course.

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C) What interesting things can you say about the people who contributed to the discovery and/or development of this topic over time?

Number theory is hugely important to the history of mathematics as one of the oldest and most accessible areas of mathematical study. To look into the history of number theory is to look into the history of math itself. Prime factorization is an interesting part of number theory because primes are an interesting part of number theory.

In 300 BCE Euclid wrote Elements, largely considered to be one of in not the most important math book ever published. In Elements Euclid compiled what he knew to be the modern understanding of geometry, but he went a bit further as well. He discusses at length and eventually gives formal proof of, the fundamental theorem of arithmetic. The whole basis of the fundamental theorem is that numbers are either prime or composite, and if a number is composite we can break it down into primes (through Prime Factorization!)

For thousands of years number theory was considered a lofty subject, and finding prime factorizations would have been a mental workout akin to our doing Sudoku or Crossword puzzles. It wasn’t until we started creating machines that could count (and eventually machines that could connect us to countless videos of small, fluffy animals sneezing) that we found a practical use for prime factorization.

We noted that factoring big primes takes a while, students should have cursory familiarity with this idea, and created RSA cryptography based on this. Every now and again the RSA foundation would offer prize money for people to attempt to factorize some really big numbers. Prime factorization is even worth money (the RSA challenge in 1997 offered a $200k prize for factoring something around RSA-380.)

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