Standing around an elongated table, seven middle school students and their faculty advisor Jim Bradford eagerly uncover a stack of Rubik’s Cubes and get to solving.
The students work the cubes seemingly faster than the speed of thought, shout across the table and pass the cubes around. A little over two minutes later and twenty-five cubes are solved.
This past spring in Linthicum, Maryland, Longfellow Middle School’s Rubik’s Cube Club finished first in the nation-wide Rubik’s Cube challenge capping off a sixth national title since 2010. The club’s winning time of one minute and 36 seconds led to their first national championship in three years.
“The students were challenging each other to get better at it and then they were learning about the fact that there was gonna be a competition. I knew we had enough students to do well in the competition,” said Bradford. “At the regional competition [the first year], we didn’t realize we were that competitive nationally so it came as a surprise when we won first.”
Nowadays, the club generally gets up to twelve members at their current meetings and had enough members last year to bring both A and B teams to the championship. The feeling of being crowned national champions is no less sweet but the club members now come prepared to bring their A-game, practicing several hours a week outside of class.
“We’ve been practicing a lot and we’ve had a lot of team solves but we were pretty excited,” said club member Dakota Lawson.
The Rubik’s Cube was invented in 1974 by a Hungarian named Erno Rubik but it didn’t take off until the early 80s when it became a craze after a toy distributor, Ideal Toys, convinced Rubik to rename the toy (originally called Magic cube) after himself. Popularized through a combination of mathematicians whose books on solving the cube broke out onto the best-seller list and a marketing craze that positioned the toy as the next hula hoop, the Rubik’s Cube was everywhere from speed cubing competitions to a giant 6-foot cube at the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair to an ABC cartoon.
“It’s a fad that was popular back in the 80s and it was popular again. It’s had a bit of a rebirth now, perhaps due to the marketing of [the] company,” said Bradford.
Along with museum exhibitions, Rubik’s Cube’s new parent company since 2013, Rubik’s Brand Limited, has focused on educational outreach through the “You Can Do the Cube” program which has launched its national middle school competition in conjunction with workshops and teacher’s guides in hopes of guiding people towards early development in math and the STEM fields.
Bradford says a lot of his club members are typically ones who are already excelling in math and science but also hopes the club will uplift them as well.
“I think the type of discipline for a student [that is] good at this activity is also the type of discipline a student needs to succeed out of this club,” said Bradford, “The puzzles are channeling their dexterity and also their minds”
“Spring Break, I was kind of bored, and saw my Rubik’s Cube sitting on a shelf, so I just googled how to solve a Rubik’s Cube online and here I am now,” said Mark Kuzel, who answered interview questions in the middle of scrambling and solving multiple cubes.
Of the eight members of last year’s winning time who graduated last year, all five were admitted to the prestigious magnet school Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology. Bradford often is called upon to write their letters of recommendation.
Among the members of the championship team who are still attending the McLean-based middle school, Kuzel and teammate Michael Fatemi both have the ability to solve the cube within approximately 10 seconds.
Bradford relies on students like Kuzel to help lead the others with pointers on good technique. Bradford himself can solve a cube but generally in the 70 to 90 second range.
When asked if he minded being beaten by his students, he joked “I’m quite fine with it,” adding, “I’d like to get my time in under a minute though.”
There are approximately 75 tricks used to solving the Rubik’s Cube, referred to as algorithms. Bradford generally starts his beginners with five algorithms and relies on the students to teach each other and use the resources online that are often provided by the Rubik’s Cube site YouCanDotheCube.com.
While the group meets once a week, they generally practice several hours a week outside the group. The group also has expanded to other products such as tackling 4×4 cubes and the designing of mosaics with Rubik’s Cubes that are featured in the display case of the middle school’s entrance hall. This year they designed one of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Longfellow Middle School Rubik’s Cube Club plans on defending their title this year although the date of competition is yet to be announced as of press time.