North Hills students work mental muscles in Puzzle-lympics

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North Hills teacher Martin Richter compares preparing for the "Puzzle-lympics" to getting ready for a pentathlon.

Athletes have to master running, jumping and throwing skills to compete in the ancient version of that five-part Olympic event.

Elementary students in the North Hills School District have to practice a variety of classroom skills to prepare for the daylong academic competition, he said.

"They get to work different mental muscles," Mr. Richter explained a few days before the problem-solving tournament was held last Thursday at the district's junior high school. "Pure math skills, reasoning skills, free association, abstract reasoning … ."

And, participants agreed, Puzzle-lympics has an added advantage: It's fun.

"We get a chance to meet new people who are interested in the same things we are," said Eleni Rapp, 12, a sixth-grader at West View Elementary School.

"Some of these things are a lot harder than they look," said Andrew Nolish, 12, a sixth-grader at Ross Elementary School. Competing against the clock, he had just rearranged six-sided Krazy Kubes to produce an image of "Girl with a Pearl Earring," a famous painting by Dutch artist Jan Vermeer.

Mr. Richter, a teacher of gifted students at West View Elementary, developed the Puzzle-lympics last year for pupils in his school. This year's competition brought together 81 contestants in grades four, five and six from all seven of the district's elementary buildings.

Teachers from other schools served as judges, timekeepers and scorers.

Events had names like Big Toe, Cracker and Two-Part Strangies.

Big Toe is a large-size version of tick-tack-toe for three to five players. Rather than just placing three marks in a row, the winner has to get five in any direction on the super-sized playing grid.

Cracker involves more traditional mathematics, requiring students to break large composite numbers into their prime factors. For example, the prime factors of 210 are 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7.

Students competed as individuals, vying for ribbons and trophies.

In games like Big Toe, however, they also have to learn to cooperate to form at least temporary alliances to prevent an opponent from getting the necessary five marks in a row, Mr. Richter said.

In preparation for the contest, he and teachers from the other elementary buildings have been meeting with students to practice the various games.

Mr. Richter said he adapted Two-Part Strangies and the other events from existing activities.

Two-Part Strangies involves using Venn diagrams, usually drawn as overlapping circles, to show relationships among random nouns.

Eleni and her friend, Kelsey Toplak, a sixth-grader from Perrysville, had the task of describing what the words "alligator" and "fingernail" have or don't have in common.

For example, both words contain the letter "L," Kelsey said. But one describes a reptile, while the other describes a body part.

Mr. Richter, a teacher since 1993, has a bachelor's degree from Carnegie Mellon University in music theory and a master's degree in elementary education from Duquesne University.

The games in Puzzle-lympics are designed to encourage flexible thinking and draw on different types of reasoning, Mr. Richter said. "That's the whole idea behind school as well, but the tournament atmosphere offers a more engaging way to achieve those goals," he said.

He agreed with Eleni that the event also offered a chance for children to build social networks with other youngsters who have similar interests.

"I like chess and I like strategy games," Andrew said. "I'm interested in building things like an electric race car."

He has a like-minded friend in Michael Fedorchak, 11, another sixth-grader at Ross Elementary. "I want to become a technological engineer," he said. "Then I could combine my interest in technology -- like robots -- with building things."

Len Barcousky can be reached at or 724-772-0184.


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