Problem Solvers Unite to Tackle the 36 Cube Challenge!

The following guest post is by Eli Jannes, a fabulous teacher in Key West, Florida who has been a champion of game play in her classroom for years.  Here Eli shares the story of how her students kicked their problem solving skills into high gear to take on ThinkFun’s most diabolical puzzle!

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 ThinkFun 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.

By 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.

Have YOU tried your hand at the 36 Cube?!

4 thoughts on “Problem Solvers Unite to Tackle the 36 Cube Challenge!

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  3. Puzzler

    Did you find the solution to cube 36? I got one for Christmas and my hands were itching to try it. (I love the description of your students.) Well after too much messing around with it on the snow day after Christmas, my family was ready to kill me.

    I got serious and put pen to paper (at work) and found there were 24 ways to solve one color at a time. Obviously the trick is to find six that work at the same time. Alas there were only combinations of four. IMPOSSIBLE PUZZLE!!! As you found out….your class could only solve it to 34.

    Sadly, I cheated and sent someone else on the internet in search of the solution. I did not really want to find out myself. Well there is a “mechanical trick.” Logic only takes you to 34. Once you solve the mechanical trick start over and find each new way to solve one color. Voila, now there four ways that six can be solved at the same time. FOUR SOLUTIONS!

    Alternately, I guess you could see which of your original solutions of four colors would work with the mechanical trick.

    Even after learning there is a “mechanical trick”…the puzzle could be challenging to your students especially because they might not immediately discover there are four solutions. I couldn’t sleep because I was hoping there was a second mechanical trick but…..sadly I could not find any other tricks and the puzzle is over.

  4. Charlotte Post author

    Hi Carol,

    Thank you for sharing your 36 Cube experience! I believe that despite their valiant efforts, Eli and her class were stumped by the Cube…. I’m thrilled to hear that you spent so much time reaching the same conclusion as these brainy students… it IS mathematically impossible, and that’s where the creative problem solving comes in! This puzzle is a great example of logic blended with out-of-the box creative reasoning, that Aha! moment where you discover the secret… as one recent solver put it “this puzzle is a mix of evil and clever!”

    Thanks for sharing your story!

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