Nenette's cubes give beginners form and feel for math concepts

Hungary spawned Rubik's Cubes. Now, from Argentina, comes 'Nenette's Cube.' The first was a puzzler, the second takes the puzzle out of mathematics. Mrs. Nenette Nogues Acuna is a mathematician from Argentina with an idea for educators everywhere. She has a cube of 64 blocks which she says can simplify the math learning process for children from kindergarten through college. Her cube is part of a set of ''Las Maderitas,'' (the little blocks) and is designed to be not only fun but teach basic mathematics, arithmetic, and geometry.

''I don't feel I have invented anything, she states matter-of-factly. ''Mr. Pythagoras invented the table and I just modeled the blocks after it. The real name should be 'Pythagoric' blocks, but I'm not sure the children are familiar with this name.''

Mrs. Nogues displayed her mathematical wares at the Museum of Science here recently. Seated at a table covered with a haphazard mosaic of Las Maderitas and surrounded by busy construction a crew of grade-schoolers, she explained the advantages of her ''toy.''

''In a class of 30 there may be four children with abstract inclinations who would do well without the blocks. The rest of the class would also be able to understand these same mathematical concepts if they could construct concrete models for themselves.

''For instance you can show quite easily 'a' plus 'b' squared,'' said Mrs. Nogues. ''Children in third or fourth grade can't use 'a' plus 'b', so for them it is 1 plus 2 (holding up the appropriate blocks) which is 3 (putting two blocks together) and squared is 9 (forming the resulting square with the blocks). And, that the square of the addition equals the addition of the cubes is easy to see,'' she continued as she built the formula with the blocks.

''You can jump from arithmetic to geometry, teaching the same concepts. Some children prefer the numbers to the shapes. Here you can use both. The idea of variables can be taught early on with this cube.''

The blocks also provide familiarity with metric units, points out Mrs. Nogues. The basic block is one cubic centimeter. The rest of the blocks are multiples of this unit.

Most significant, perhaps, ''They are fun to play with. So, the children play first, then learn.''

Except in demonstration workshops, Nenette's blocks have not been fully tested in this country. However, they were successfully used (and are still being used) in Argentina at Los Gurises, a pilot school partially funded by the Tinker Foundation through Bank Street College of Education in New York.

''What was impressive was the way in which the children were actively engaged in wanting to learn. It was terrific to watch,'' says Carol Darcy, in Argentina as a Fulbright scholar and working at Los Grises at the time.

''As far as I can tell, her mathematics is solid, the stuff that she has is interesting, aesthetically pleasing, and based on a very clear notion of children's learning abilities,'' says George Hein of Leslie College.

Mrs. Nogues came up with the idea 15 years ago. At the time, the launch of Sputnik was spurring Western interest in new ways of teaching mathematics.

''I tried to build on what the teachers already knew. I studied Cuisenaire rods and expanded on the idea to include the multiplication table.'' In fact, the border of her cube is composed of Cuisenaire-like rods.

Mrs. Nogues's teaching concepts will strike a familiar chord to those elementary educators already using Cuisenaire, Multi-basic Dienes, or Montessori blocks. ''But these are only subsets of my 1,000-piece patented model,'' she explains.

The criticisms of Nenette's cube have come from Cuisenaire users. For instance, it isn't color-coded, as are the Cuisenaire rods. This makes it harder to recognize the value of a block.

But Mrs. Nogues argues that color-coding is a harmful crutch, except perhaps for some special-education students. As for marking the blocks with value lines: ''The children do not need them. It diminishes the blocks' appeal, especially for kids who loathe math.''

Stymied by the red tape she's run into in US schools, Mrs. Nogues is currently presenting her blocks to parents; first as a toy, secondly as a teaching aid. She is also pursuing support through an international institution that has shown an interest. Her biggest stumbling block now is getting her texts translated. Although she speaks fluent English, her instructions are, as yet, mostly in Spanish.

Editor's note: For further information, write to Mrs. Nenette Nogues Acuna, 32 Raven Street, Apartment 1, Dorchester, Mass. 02125.

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