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The Rubik's Cube Makes a Math Class Comeback

Think you can solve a Rubik's Cube in under two minutes? Math teachers are showing kids how.

Think you can solve a Rubik's Cube in one minute and fifty-five seconds? That's what a twelve year-old in New York City did at school, and she's not alone. Students as young as seven are learning how to solve the cube that quickly in just one day—and they're not just switching the stickers around either.

Nope, a crop of Rubik's Cube-solving baby geniuses hasn't been birthed in some secret government program. These young cube solvers attend one of the 1,600 schools and hundreds of afterschool programs participating in the You CAN Do The Rubik's Cube program.

Although savvy teachers and cube enthusiasts have long known that solving the puzzle enables students to develop tactile and spatial understanding of math concepts like area, perimeter, volume, angles, and algorithms, figuring out how to use them to teach students has long been a challenge.

YouTube is full of cube-solving tutorials—like Dan Brown's video with almost 17 million views—but that approach doesn't specifically connect to educational standards. It's also not feasible in cash-strapped schools that don't have funds to purchase the equipment needed to project an internet video in the classroom.

Enter the company that makes the 30 year-old cube, London-based Seven Towns. Three years ago they began working with teachers and educational consultants to create downloadable lesson plans that align with content standards and 21st century skills like critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and innovation. Their site also provides teacher's instruction pages, homework sheets, and student answer keys. The best part? All the downloads are free.

In Minnesota, high school algebra teacher David McMayer told the Minneapolis Star Tribune he uses the Rubik's Cube, "to teach transformations and functional analysis." According to McMayer, when students are working with the cube, they, "have to look ahead at the three or four modifications you'll be doing next, so it gets complicated. It's kind of an 'Aha' moment for them."

Science and math educational organizations across the country are also jumping on board the Rubik's Cube phenomenon by hosting cube solving competitions. At the end of October, the USA Science and Engineering Festival, held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., hosted two You CAN Do The Cube tournaments, one for grades K-8 and another for grades 9-12. The top prize for the teams that most quickly solved 25 cubes? A cool grand.

Cindy Caruso, the Afterschool and Summer Camp Coordinator for New York City's Parks and Recreation Department says that along with teaching math content and teamwork, solving the Rubik's Cube teaches kids life lessons. "It can be pretty frustrating when you're doing it and some of them could give up. Well, actually it's been the opposite; it's a boost to their self-confidence."

Photo (cc) via Flickr user Afagen

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