I began my personal journey into the world of Cubing when I was attending Regis University in Denver, Colorado in 2009. My senior thesis project involved devising a cryptosystem using the Rubik’s Cube to encode and decode messages. Although my involvement with the Rubik’s Cube waned post-graduation, it was rekindled shortly after I became a secondary teacher of mathematics in 2014. I had several Rubik’s Cubes in my possession from my college days and these decorated the shelves in my classroom. I recall these puzzles catching the eyes of many curious pupils. After months of traditional curriculum presentation, I determined that my students were in need of a novel lesson, one that would ignite a passion for problem-solving. This lesson would involve the colourful and alluring hexahedron puzzle on my desk: the Rubik’s Cube.
This article originally appeared in Issue 46 of the UKEdMagazine. Click here to view.
Bringing the Cube to the Classroom
Initially, I thought that teaching the students to manipulate the Rubik’s Cube back to its solved state would be fun and engaging, a lesson in memorization of not-so-complicated algorithms (in my mind) that would leave them with the satisfaction of completing a task that only 5-10% of all humans have accomplished. This was an intriguing lure for several students, who ended up finding tutorial videos online and practising at home–and in the hallways during breaks–to increase their solving speed. For the rest of the class, however, the real “hook” was found to be in a different area of cubing: mosaic-building. After some research, I found the website for You CAN Do the Rubik’s Cube. This organization provides educators in the United States with large quantities of Rubik’s Cubes–100, 225, 400 or 600 Cubes–on loan, at no cost except for return shipping. This was extremely appealing because I was able to borrow the Cubes for six weeks and return them after building several mosaics and giving my students the change of pace from the traditional math curriculum. During the loan period, my class of engaged students created Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln and a version of the school logo. Students felt empowered to complete these mosaics because they only require one to solve for a single face, rather than the whole Cube, a much more challenging feat.
Perseverance through Pixels & Patterns
This year, I am teaching at a different school, where the students learn in a non-traditional, alternative academic environment. The mission of the school is to instil life effectiveness skills which include perseverance/resiliency, goal-setting/time management, conflict resolution, social appropriateness and healthy risk-taking. In just one class period, I have witnessed all of these skills permeate through the building of the Rubik’s Cube mosaics. The energy in the classroom has been unprecedented; the students worked together and held one another accountable for staying on task to reach a shared objective in a set amount of time. This phenomenon has brought me to question: “How can we engage students this way in every class?”
I recall on the first day of this elective course, I was almost frantically moving between my students, helping them learn to solve the “white cross” and then the corner “cubies” to complete the first layer. This filled most of the period. Several students were able to solve the whole first layer, allowing the group to complete a beginner-level gradient mosaic made of 36 Rubik’s Cubes with the visual aid of a template provided online. Two days later, the students created a target design and Anne Frank, which were 36 and 100 Cubes, respectively. During another class period, they finished Nikola Tesla, which added up to 225 Cubes in all. At various points in the hour, I heard comments of, “I am about to give up!” and “Ugh, this hurts my brain!” It was quite satisfying to me after the mosaics were completed to hear, “Wow, I can’t believe that we finished that! It looks amazing!” My colleagues, upon viewing my students’ finished products, made similar positive feedback, including, “I wish I was taking your elective class!” and “That is impressive! Did that really just take ONE HOUR?!” The word spread and due to popular demand and a drive within the students to construct bigger mosaics, the class was offered the following five-week session. For the second term, I ordered an additional 400 Rubik’s Cubes for a total supply of 625 Rubik’s Cubes on loan. With the extra inventory, the class was able to create numerous 400- and 600-Cube mosaics.
“We CAN Do the Rubik’s Cube!”
Any educator can lead a group of learners to build a work of art using Rubik’s Cubes. The preliminary stages of solving the first layer are the only steps necessary to begin construction of mosaics. In a class of seven students, we completed designs of well-known historical figures, all with the basic knowledge of stages one through three of the method suggested by You CAN Do the Rubik’s Cube, the educational branch of Rubik®’s Brand Ltd. Teachers who do not know how to solve even one face can learn within an hour alongside their students to create artwork in a cooperative environment.
Erno Rubik, the inventor of the Rubik’s Cube, commented: “If you are curious, you’ll find puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.” This resonates with me as I navigate the profession of teaching, determined, finding puzzles on a daily basis in the form of students’ academic and social needs, barriers to communication and other adversities. I have noticed through the challenges, however, that it can be quite beautiful when individuals come together to achieve a common goal. By building the Rubik’s Cube mosaics side by side, my students and I have discovered that there is “ART” in “TEAMWORK.”
Dan Van der Vieren @RTBCoaching currently teaches maths to adolescents in the United States. He started teaching secondary maths in 2014. Dan loves to learn from other educators. He can solve the Rubik’s Cube and plays finger-style classical guitar.
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