A Polyhedra Construction Kit

To make a Christmas gift for her brother Leon, Alex asked all her friends to save empty cereal boxes. She collected about a dozen boxes.

She cut the boxes open, which gave her several big sheets of thin cardboard.

Then she carefully traced the templates for a regular triangle, square, pentagon, and hexagon, as shown below.


Click here to download the polygon templates

She drew the dark outline of each polygon with a ballpoint pen, pressing hard to score the cardboard so the tabs would bend easily.

She cut out shapes until her fingers felt bruised: 20 each of the pentagon and hexagon, 40 each of the triangle and square.

Alex bought a bag of small rubber bands for holding the tabs together. Each rubber band can hold two tabs, forming an edge of the polyhedron. So, for instance, it takes six squares and twelve rubber bands to make a cube.

Finally, she stuffed the whole kit in a plastic zipper bag, along with the following instructions.

Polyhedra Have “Many Faces”

Poly means many, and hedron means face, so a polyhedron is a 3-D shape with many faces.

The plural of polyhedron is polyhedra, thanks to the ancient Greeks, who didn’t know that the proper way to make a plural was to use the letter s.

Each corner of a polyhedron is called a vertex, and to make it more confusing, the plural of vertex is vertices.

Regular Polyhedra

Regular polyhedra have exactly the same faces and corners all around. If one side is a square, then all the sides will be squares. And if three squares meet to make one vertex, then all the other vertices will be made of three squares, just like that first one.

There are only five possible regular polyhedra. Can you figure out why?

Here are the five regular polyhedra, also called the Platonic solids. Try to build each of them with your construction kit.

Tetrahedron: three equilateral triangles meeting at each vertex.

Hexahedron: three squares meeting at each vertex. Do you know its common name?

Octahedron: four triangles at each vertex.

Icosahedron: five triangles at each vertex.

Dodecahedron: three pentagons per vertex.

You can find pictures of these online, but it’s more challenging to build them without peeking at the finished product. Just repeat the vertex pattern at every corner until the polygons connect together to make a complete 3-D shape.

Semi-Regular Polyhedra

Semi-regular polyhedra have each face a regular polygon, although not all the same. Each corner is still the same all around. These are often called the Archimedean polyhedra.

For example, on the cuboctahedron, every vertex consists of a square-triangle-square-triangle combination.

Here are a few semi-regular polyhedra you might try to build, described by the faces in the order they meet at each corner:

Icosidodecahedron: triangle, pentagon, triangle, pentagon.

Truncated octahedron: square, hexagon, hexagon.

Truncated icosahedron: pentagon, hexagon, hexagon. Where have you seen this?

Rhombicuboctahedron: triangle, square, square, square.

Rhombicosidodecahedron: triangle, square, pentagon, square.

Now, make up some original polyhedra of your own. What will you name them?

To Be Continued…

Read all the posts from the December 2000/January 2001 issue of my Mathematical Adventures of Alexandria Jones newsletter.

CREDITS: “50/52 Weeks of Teddy – Merry Christmas” photo by Austin Kirk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

November Math Calendars

High school math teacher Chris Rime has done it again. Check out his November 2015 printable math calendars for Algebra 1 (in English or Spanish), Algebra 2, and Geometry students. Enjoy!


Things to Do with a Math Calendar

At home:
Post the calendar on your refrigerator. Use each math puzzle as a daily review “mini-quiz” for your children (or yourself).

In the classroom:
Post today’s calculation on the board as a warm-up puzzle. Encourage your students to make up “Today is…” puzzles of their own.

As a puzzle:
Cut the calendar squares apart and trim off the dates. Then challenge your students to arrange them in ascending (or descending) order.

Make up problems to fill a new calendar for next month.
And if you do, please share!

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

Spirolateral Math Doodles

This is not a math book coverInterrupt your regular math programming to try this fantastic math doodling investigation!

Anna Weltman wrote a math/art book. It’s great fun for all ages, full of fantastic mathematical explorations — including spirolateral math doodles.


How to Get Started

To make a spirolateral, you first pick a short series of numbers (1, 2, 3 is a traditional first set) and an angle (90° for beginners). On graph paper, draw a straight line the length of your first number. Turn through your chosen angle, and draw the next line. Repeat turning and drawing lines, and when you get to the end of your number series, start again at the first number.

Some spirolaterals come back around to the beginning, making a closed loop. Others never close, spiraling out into infinity—‌or at least, to the edge of your graph paper.


For Further Reading

Articles by Robert J. Krawczyk:

Anna Weltman appeared on Let’s Play Math blog once before, with the game Snugglenumber. And she’s a regular contributor to the wonderful Math Munch blog.

Professor Povey’s Perplexing Problems

Check out this new puzzle book for upper-level high school students & adults:

Professor Povey picture

Thomas Povey is a Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford, where he researches jet-engine and rocket technology. In his new book Professor Povey’s Perplexing Problems, he shares his favorite idiosyncratic stumpers from pre-university maths and physics.

These problems “should test your ability to grapple with the unfamiliar,” Povey writes. “You will learn to tease new problems apart, and apply things you already know in ways you had never considered. You have all the tools you need, but you should see what amazing things you can do with them.”

Can You Solve This?

Alex Bellos shared one of Professor Povey’s puzzles in The Guardian. Can you figure it out?

Professor Povey cover

The book starts off with geometry, but most of the chapters focus on various topics from physics. Some of the puzzles are accessible through applied common sense, but for many of them, it helps to have taken an algebra-based (high school level) physics course.

Kitten is just finishing up her physics textbook, and she still has one more year of homeschooling. I’m hoping to work several of these puzzles into our schedule this year. It should be great fun!


If like me you’re a bit rusty on your physics, don’t worry. Each answer is thoroughly explained—‌in fact, it takes a bit of discipline to close the book and try your hand at each problem before reading on. I wish they’d put the solutions in the back rather than in the main text, to make it easier to browse the problems without reading spoilers.

Speaking of which, here’s the answer to the video puzzle above…

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

Math Storytelling Day: The Hospital Floor

[Feature photo above by Christiaan Triebert via flickr (CC BY 2.0).]

Have you ever heard of Math Storytelling Day? On September 25, people around the world celebrate mathematics by telling stories together. The stories can be real — like my story below — or fictional like the tale of Wizard Mathys from Fantasia and his crystal ball communication system.

Check out these posts for more information:

My Math Story


My story begins with an unexpected adventure in pain. Appendicitis sidewhacked my life last week, but that’s not the story. It’s just the setting. During my recovery, I spent a lot of time in the smaller room of my hospital suite. I noticed this semi-random pattern in the floor tile, which made me wonder:

  • Did they choose the pattern to keep their customers from getting bored while they were … occupied?
  • Is the randomness real? Or can I find a line of symmetry or a set of tiles that repeat?
  • If I take pictures from enough different angles, could I transfer the whole floor to graph paper for further study?
  • And if the nurse finds me doing this, will she send me to a different ward of the hospital? Do hospitals have psychiatric wards, or is that only in the movies?
  • What is the biggest chunk of squares I could “break out” from this pattern that would create the illusion of a regular, repeating tessellation?

I gave up on the graph paper idea (for now) and printed the pictures to play with. By my definition, “broken” pattern chunks need to be contiguous along the sides of the tiles, like pentominoes. Also, the edge of the chunk must be a clean break along the mortar lines. The piece can zigzag all over the place, but it isn’t allowed to come back and touch itself anywhere, even at a corner. No holes allowed.

I’m counting the plain squares as the unit and each of the smaller rectangles as a half square. So far, the biggest chunk of repeating tiles I’ve managed to break out is 283 squares.


What Math Stories Will You Tell?

Have you and your children created any mathematical stories this year? I’d love to hear them! Please share your links in the comments section below.

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

Math Teachers at Play #76

76[Feature photo (above) by U.S. Army RDECOM. Photo (right) by Stephan Mosel. (CC BY 2.0)]

On your mark… Get set… Go play some math!

Welcome to the 76th edition of the Math Teachers At Play math education blog carnival — a smorgasbord of links to bloggers all around the internet who have great ideas for learning, teaching, and playing around with math from preschool to pre-college.

By tradition, we start the carnival with a puzzle in honor of our 76th edition. But if you would like to jump straight to our featured blog posts, click here to see the Table of Contents.

Continue reading Math Teachers at Play #76

Reblog: Patty Paper Trisection

[Feature photo above by Michael Cory via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).]


I hear so many people say they hated geometry because of the proofs, but I’ve always loved a challenging puzzle. I found the following puzzle at a blog carnival during my first year of blogging. Don’t worry about the arbitrary two-column format you learned in high school — just think about what is true and how you know it must be so.

I hope you enjoy this “Throw-back Thursday” blast from the Let’s Play Math! blog archives:


One of the great unsolved problems of antiquity was to trisect any angle using only the basic tools of Euclidean geometry: an unmarked straight-edge and a compass. Like the alchemist’s dream of turning lead into gold, this proved to be an impossible task. If you want to trisect an angle, you have to “cheat.” A straight-edge and compass can’t do it. You have to use some sort of crutch, just as an alchemist would have to use a particle accelerator or something.

One “cheat” that works is to fold your paper. I will show you how it works, and your job is to show why …

[Click here to go read Puzzle: Patty Paper Trisection.]

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.

More Than One Way To Find the Center of a Circle

[Feature photo above by hom26 via Flickr.]

My free time lately has gone to local events and to book editing. I hope to put up a series of blog posts sometime soon, based on the Homeschool Math FAQs chapter I’m adding to the paperback version of Let’s Play Math. [And of course, I’ll update the ebook whenever I finally publish the paperback, so those of you who already bought a copy should be able to get the new version without paying extra.]

But in the meantime, as I was browsing my blog archives for an interesting “Throw-Back Thursday” post, I stumbled across this old geometry puzzle from Dave Marain over at MathNotations blog:

Is it possible that AB is a chord but NOT a diameter? That is, could circle ABC have a center that is NOT point O?

Jake shows Jack a piece of wood he cut out in the machine shop: a circular arc bounded by a chord. Jake claimed that the arc was not a semicircle. In fact, he claimed it was shorter than a semicircle, i.e., segment AB was not a diameter and arc ACB was less than 180 degrees.

Jack knew this was impossible and argued: “Don’t you see, Jake, that O must be the center of the circle and that OA, OB and OC are radii.”

Jake wasn’t buying this, since he had measured everything precisely. He argued that just because they could be radii didn’t prove they had to be.

Which boy do you agree with?

  • Pick one side of the debate, and try to find at least three different ways to prove your point.

If you have a student in geometry or higher math, print out the original post (but not the comments — it’s no fun when someone gives you the answer!) and see what he or she can do with it.

Dave offers many other puzzles to challenge your math students. While you are at his blog, do take some time to browse past articles.

The Linear Inequality Adventures of Ohio Jones

Ohio Jones 1

Last week, Kitten and I reached her textbook’s chapter on graphing linear equations, and a minor mistake with negative numbers threw her into an “I can’t do it!” funk. It’s not easy teaching a perfectionist kid.

Usually her mood improves if we switch to a slightly more advanced topic, and luckily I had saved these worksheets on my desktop, waiting for just such an opportunity. Today’s lesson:

  • Some fun(ish) worksheets
    “For tomorrow, students will be graphing systems of inequalities, so I decided to create a little Ohio Jones adventure (Indiana’s lesser known brother)…”

I offered to give her a hint, but she wanted to try it totally on her own. It took her about 40 minutes to work through the first few rooms of the Lost Templo de los Dulces and explain her solutions to me. I’m sure she’ll speed up with experience.

So far, she’s enjoying it much more than the textbook lesson. It’s fascinating to me how the mere hint of fantasy adventure can change graphing equations from boring to cool. Thanks, Dan!

howtosolveproblemsWant to help your kids learn math? Claim your free 24-page problem-solving booklet, and sign up to hear about new books, revisions, and sales or other promotions.