Seven-year-old Emma Bahr's eyes lit up when she got close to piecing together a solid side on her Rubik's Cube.
"Ms. Sullivan helped me, but I am getting better," said the second-grader at Raven Stream Elementary in New Prague, Minn., as she held up the brightly colored cube. "My hands hurt, but I think it's really cool."
Once thought of as a puzzle that only geniuses could solve, the basic 30-year-old toy is making a comeback in classrooms across the country, from elementary to high schools. Interest has been spurred by the company's new school-oriented initiative called You Can Do the Cube, but teachers say the three-dimensional cubes teach kids math skills as well as how to manage their frustration.
"I think it's really just invaluable," said teacher Margaret Sullivan, who uses the cubes to show spatial reasoning using the squares' different positions. "The kids just love it. If they can touch it and move it, then it becomes more meaningful for them."
But the lessons get far more complex, as well. David McMayer, an algebra teacher at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, used the cubes to teach transformations and functional analysis.
"When you're holding the cube, you have to look ahead at the three or four modifications you'll be doing next, so it gets complicated," he said. "It's kind of an 'Aha' moment for them."
At Burnsville High School, the cubes got enough attention in Chuck Croatt's geometry class that he decided to start a Rubik's Cube club last spring, dedicated to solving the puzzle and having informal, inter-club competitions.
"I just brought it up and kids got really excited about it," said Croatt, who has taught entire classes to solve the puzzle layer-by-layer, based on the approximately 10 basic algorithms needed to achieve consistent results each time. Many of the kids had seen Will Smith running through the motions in the movie "The Pursuit of Happyness," and gained interest. He had one student who could complete six cubes in less than five minutes; another could complete the puzzle behind his back.
"There's kind of a perception out there that you have to be a genius to see the cube in a certain way, but a lot of these people just have the algorithms memorized," he said. "But it looks pretty impressive."
McMayer said he believes some of the interest is sparked by the company's new advancements to the toy, with new electronic versions, as well as different sized cubes, including a larger 7-by-7-inch cube. Chessa Devine, a second-grader at Raven Stream, owns a sparkly version, with pink squares instead of red.
"Companies are realizing they don't have to stick to the 3-by-3 cube," McMayer said. "And it's just taking the interest to another level."