Kids take challenge to solve Rubik's Cube

Tuesday, October 19, 2010; C10

If you've ever tried to solve a Rubik's Cube (and, like most people, failed), then you'll understand why Asante Whittington, 10, went crazy when he mastered the puzzle for the first time last month. It had taken him four days to finish it, and when he finally did, the fourth-grader at Martin Luther King Elementary School in the District jumped up, yelled and high-fived all the other kids in his math class.

"I felt happy -- and exhausted," he said. Asante was participating in a Rubik's Cube program at school and is now on the school's Rubik's Cube team.

You may think of the Rubik's Cube as that really hard three-dimensional puzzle that only really smart people do. But this 30-year-old toy, famous around the world for being challenging, frustrating and fun all at once, is being used by teachers in 2,000 schools nationwide as part of a program called You Can Do the Cube. The program is based on a booklet that explains the moves that solve the cube. Kids develop problem-solving and memorization skills, learn to manage frustration, and work on math concepts such as geometry and fractions.

"They have a hands-on tool, [so] it brings it alive to them," said Asante's math teacher, h'Enri Whitseyjohnson. "It teaches them how to communicate, too. When one child shows another how to get a square from one place to another on the cube, they have to explain it."

MLK is one of many schools that have started teams after using the cube in math classes. Students from 50 Rubik's Cube teams in the District, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware will compete Saturday as part of the USA Science & Engineering Festival taking place on the National Mall this weekend. (Asante's team is new, so it will not be in the competition.) The kids not only compete against one another but also against themselves. Usually, after solving the cube the first time, they want to do it again, only faster. Or blindfolded.

"That would be so awesome if I could do [the cube blindfolded.] I want to learn it," said William Neidecker-Gonzales, 14, a ninth-grader at the School Without Walls in the District. William first solved the puzzle a year and a half ago. It took a while to figure it out, but after a lot of practice, he's now a Rubik's Cube master. "I usually do it in around 40 seconds," he said. "My record is 25 seconds."

William is on his school's Rubik's Cube team and helps teach other kids, including classmate Tyriek Mack, 13.

"He's a kid, so he made it simpler and easier to understand," said Tyriek, who started on the cube a few weeks ago and can now solve it in about four minutes. "It's cool."

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

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