Group of BW students finds solution to ‘unsolvable’ puzzle

Recently, three classmates in the physics class “General Problem-Solving Techniques” found the solution to a puzzle that had not yet been solved by any others students in over a decade and a half.

The course was first offered back in 2002, making Baldwin Wallace the first university in the world to have a four-credit problem-solving course. 

In analogy, “[PHY-104] is CrossFit for [the student’s] brain,” said Dr. Edwin Meyer, the associate professor of the class and department chair of Physics. In other words, the course, which is co-taught by Meyer and Assistant Professor Meridith Witt, acts as a means of mental exercise. 

Throughout the semester students learn “… to communicate, work well with each other,… how to lead, how to follow, how to share insight,… [and] how to make progress on a problem that [students] have never seen,” said assistant professor Meridith Witt. 

The specific puzzle at hand is solved by using a set of twelve shapes known as ‘pentominoes,’ which each consist of five squares. The puzzle required no mathematical calculations but rather close focus and mental stamina. 

“This problem is a pattern recognition [problem] and it’s an operations research problem where you have to look at the pieces… to evaluate their efficacy at performing certain parts of the problem,” said Meyer. 

The goal of the puzzle is to create the longest continuous path using as many sides of the pentominoes as possible. After dividing into groups of three, students laid out the pieces on a grid to create a one square unit wide path in the negative space. Although no time limit is given, students are allotted the entire class period to complete the problems. 

For one group however, solving the pentomino puzzle took less than ten minutes including getting the highest score known to be possible. 

“Usually the maximum [score] is in the high twenties,” said Meyer. “Once in a while we get somebody that gets in the low thirties. The record was thirty-three.”

Meyer has even brought the specified problem to many family problem-solving nights, competitions involving various high schools and even to Australia and New Zealand, but still, no one has reached the score of the current students. 

“No one has gotten close to thirty-six. I didn’t believe it,” said Meyer. 

The three students, all of different majors, that found the thirty-six square unit path were Emma Ciha, a junior broadcasting and mass communications major, Christian Mott, a junior film studies major, and Michael Shaw, a senior marketing and finance double major.

All three students who credited teamwork to some of their success, said that they were excited after completing the puzzle.

In regards to working in a group, Shaw said that, “anytime you’re tackling an issue when you have more than one person to look at different perspectives, [an advantage is present].” 

For further explanation on how the group was able to solve the puzzle quicker than the rest of their peers, Shaw said, “It takes definitely a specific mind set. With anything like a hard problem…  or something like a puzzle, it’s identifying what you’re supposed to do. If you set up those pieces and you explain to somebody, it sounds simple in concept, but it’s when you start playing with it and start thinking about it is where it gets complex.”

Along with having the class dedicated to puzzles, examinations in the general problem-solving course are less traditional than other classes.

 “You can’t prepare for the test,” said Mott. 

The tests that are given involve the same type of problems learned in the category being discussed in class, however the problem would be one never practiced or seen previously. Therefore, there is no way for the students to know the exact problem they will face come test day.  

In total, Ciha said that she had “more understanding about how to tackle problems” after participation in the course. “In other classes, you just listen to a lecture and in this one you’re involved and you’re solving things… and [the professors] aren’t giving you answers. You need to figure it out.” 

“The class is very unique in that it doesn’t teach material, it teaches a skill,” said Shaw.