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Piner Puzzle Cubes Teach Engineering, Creativity

Two boys work on gluing together wooden cubesPiner Middle School seventh graders stretched their engineering skills and creative minds recently as they created and decorated puzzle cubes for each other using 3D design programs with a little touch of competition.

“The cubes project has constraints the students have to work around, but it’s also creative,” said Jenny Richard, STEM and robotics teacher at Piner. “All of these kids want to outdo each other to make the most difficult puzzle.”

Her three seventh grade classes were divided into groups to tackle their projects. They first had to design a set of five puzzle pieces of different shapes and sizes using Tinkercad, a 3D design application.

“The challenge is that the pieces have to interlock. They can’t just be slices, like a cake,” Richard said. “Kids have seen similar puzzles to this, like a Rubik’s cube, and can jump right into making it.”

Richard uses Tinkercad so kids can more easily visualize 3D objects. Tinkercad is also the introductory program to Autodesk, which is widely used in high school technical classes as well as in careers areas like architecture or engineering.

“Because these kids have used Tinkercad, they already have experience with a similar program,” Richard said. “It also teaches new skills like how to view things in a 3D space that they can use anywhere.”

Once the pieces were created virtually, it was time to make them reality. Using wooden cubes, the students lined up the edges and faces and glued them together to create the puzzle pieces. When the glue set, it was time to decorate.Two girls talk while gluing together wooden cubes.

“The fact that the students can work with their hands makes it more accessible to students, no matter the struggles they may have in the classroom,” Richard said. “It’s complicated enough to pose problems that they have to work through to improve their designs.”

Richard has been doing this hands-on project lesson from the STEM curriculum Project Lead The Way for two years, and it pulls students in by engaging them through technology and creative thinking. All the while, the students are learning about the engineering design process of solving a problem.

“They’re building and testing their puzzles and seeing how it fits or doesn’t fit together,” Richard said. “Then, they’ll solve each other’s puzzles and present it to the class as well.”

Student Finn Bryant and his group first collaborated to make the hardest puzzle the group could create and then worked out the design.

“I learned a lot about my problem-solving. I usually like to rush, but this helps me be more patient,” Bryant said. “It’s also fun to work with all of your friends on the cube and solve it together.”