Student team excels in worldwide code-breaking contest

Math, computer science majors one of 13 teams to crack two of three Kryptos codes
In a computer screenshot, UW-Stout students Hannah Baker, at bottom right, Nate Geschwill, middle, and Erin O’Brien work on a code-breaking contest.
May 5, 2020

A team of University of Wisconsin-Stout students competed in the Kryptos international code-breaking contest in April, cracking two of the three codes, something only 13 teams from around the world managed to accomplish.

UW-Stout students Hannah Baker, Nate Geschwill and Erin O’Brien made up the UW-Stout team.

Kryptos is open to undergraduate students. The theme of the contest is centered around breaking, or cryptanalysis, of ciphers, or secret writing. Each challenge presented contestants with a brief scenario together with ciphertext, an encoded message. The goal was to discover the original English plain text message. The challenges and solutions can be seen here.

Teams competed from colleges and high schools from around the United States and around the world, a total of 49 teams with 116 students.

Tyler SkorczewskiApplied Mathematics Assistant Professor Tyler Skorczewski encouraged students to enter the contest. “I am very proud of the students for cracking two of the codes,” he said. “These are not easy challenges by any stretch. Cracking one cipher is very good. Two is great.”

Events like Kryptos allow students to develop and showcase their problem-solving skills in a fun competition, Skorczewski said. “They get to show that they know how to take a challenging problem and turn out a solution quickly,” he said. “This is what employers look for. UW-Stout’s polytechnic focus blends theory and application in the right way for students to tackle challenges quickly.”

Baker, of Silver Bay, Minn., who is a graduating senior majoring in computer science and applied mathematics and computer science, said the competition was difficult, but enjoyable, and she was pleased the team did so well. 

“None of us have had any kind of formal cryptography experience, so we weren't sure what we were getting into or how we were supposed to start,” said Baker, who will work at Cigna in Eden Prairie, Minn., starting in July as a Technological Early Career Development Program senior analyst. “Over the course of the 96 hours that the competition lasted, the team spent 11 hours working on the challenges together, and I know we all worked on it outside of our meetings as well.”

The team was recruited through AMCS Women’s Group, whose mission is to encourage and support women in math and computer science-related fields as well as women with an interest in the fields.

Geschwill, of Lexington, Minn., a junior majoring in applied mathematics and computer science software development and game design and development, said he joined in the contest to have a fun activity over a weekend. “I had no expectations to get any questions correct,” Geschwill said. “After getting two of the three questions completed, I felt very confident in my cryptanalysis skills, given that I had little to none when I started.”

O’Brien, of Kimball, Minn., a first-year-applied mathematics and computer science student concentrating in math education, said this was her first experience with coding. “We all worked together to break the code,” O’Brien said “We bounced ideas off each other and did lots of trial and error. It was frustrating but we kept pushing through.”

Geschwill would urge other students to take part in future contests. “If anyone has even the slightest interest in cryptanalysis, I would encourage those students to compete,” Geschwill said. “Don’t feel pressured to solve all the questions. It is still a big accomplishment to crack even one of the three questions.”



Tyler Skorczewski

Inspiring Graduates Share Their Stout Experiences Featured Image

Inspiring Graduates Share Their Stout Experiences

Celebrate our graduates as they cross the commencement stage and reflect on the journey that brought them here
UW-Stout students learn ‘the sky is the limit’ in new Forbes-based luxury management course Featured Image

UW-Stout students learn ‘the sky is the limit’ in new Forbes-based luxury management course

Hands-on learning in hospitality and service excellence, with off-campus stays, exemplifies polytechnic advantage
Stout Scholar proud of dual STEM degrees, leadership and volunteering on campus Featured Image

Stout Scholar proud of dual STEM degrees, leadership and volunteering on campus

Follow Thompson’s senior year as the third-generation student graduates early