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Problem Solvers Unite to Tackle the 36 Cube Challenge!

Eli Jannes, 4th & 5th Grade Teacher
Key West, Florida, USA


Right before the winter 2008 holidays, I stumbled upon an advertisement for Think Fun's new 36 Cube. This puzzle seemed like the ultimate challenge...complex, three-dimensional, intimidating. I had to order it.


Right after I received the puzzle, I got wind of a contest Think Fun was running for anyone who could solve and prove their solution by the end of December. With winter recess rapidly approaching, I knew there was only a small chance we could experience that kind of success. I brought the puzzle to my classroom as an early holiday gift and explained the challenge, not knowing where it might take us.


The students' reactions varied. There were those who started shaking with excitement during the morning meeting, edging their way closer to the puzzle so that they could get their hands on it first. Others started whispering strategies, planning what they might try. The remaining few backed away slowly, fully intimidated by the very structure of the puzzle.


We recognized early on that one puzzle for 30 students was going to be a challenge. The class worked quickly to develop a plan that would promote productivity and collaboration. They mapped out a schematic that represented the cube, cut pieces of colored paper to replicate the puzzle pieces and made enough copies so everyone could think through some possible solutions at the same time. The students also worked out a schedule so that groups of 3 could rotate through using the actual puzzle to try out their strategies. The scheduled times ran before school, during recess and after dismissal. They were hooked.

Key WestBy the second day of continuous play, the children realized this was no ordinary challenge. They delegated a group of students to do some online research. They began reading about combinations, permutations, famous puzzles and even Pascal's triangle. I smiled when I heard, "It can't be random. Math is the study of patterns. There has to be some system."


You learn a lot about your students when you present them with a novel situation. I enjoyed watching the confident fast-starters throw their arms up in despair, realizing that random moves got them nowhere. I was intrigued by the methodical planning of a group of quiet girls. "We're not good at this stuff," is what they said on day 1 but by mid-afternoon of the second day, the entire class was convinced that their strategy was the key to success. I had to smirk when I found a group of timid children quietly approaching the puzzle when no one was looking. I even learned a lot about my colleagues. When I brought the puzzle to a staff meeting, some quickly pushed it away from them while others begged to take it home for a try.


I wish I could say we figured out the solution but we didn't. We came awfully close with just 4 pieces conflicting. The puzzle still captures the attention of students in the class even though the contest deadline is over. Remarkably, it doesn't seem to matter that we haven't achieved our goal. The process was worth the effort. We learned a lot about perseverance, teamwork, self-assurance and methodical thinking. We even learned a few things about math.

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