Connecticut Native Tries to Puzzle Talcott Mountain Students

Nov 21, 2016

A Connecticut native credits the Talcott Mountain Science Center in Avon for helping him become one of the most syndicated puzzle-makers in the world. 

If you've ever played the word puzzle called Jumble, you can thank -- or blame -- David Hoyt for it. For over 20 years, Hoyt has been inventing games and puzzles -- and making a pretty decent living.

So how did he get there? Well, it starts with the Talcott Mountain Science Center.

Hoyt was living in Southington when he visited the science center nearly 40 years ago, and that visit made a lasting impression on him.

"This place really motivated me to want to be smart, and want to get as much knowledge as I could," Hoyt said.

He came as a kid for a six-week program, but two weeks in, his family moved from Connecticut to Florida.

"I thought about this program a lot," he said.

David Hoyt.
Credit Javon Franklin

Then, about 16 years ago, he bumped into the co-founder of the science center and promised he'd return one day to teach today's generation.

In late October, Hoyt walked through the science center's doors with two of his biggest -- literally biggest -- inventions. 

"We are playing Giant Word Winder and Giant Math Winder here with the students," he said. "There are 16 double-sided boards that can be put together in 262 decillion different ways."

That's 262 followed by 33 zeros.

The boards are huge at 81 square feet each. The players are trying to connect the sides by either using words, in the case of word winder, or math equations.

But it's not just connecting words or numbers. There's teamwork and decision-making involved too.

"You kind of have to pool your ideas," said Aresh Pourkavoos, an eighth-grader. "Every person on the team comes up with a sequence of moves, different moves. Then you kind of decide the best one, right? Block the other team, or help make a path. Or ally with the other team if one gets to close to winning. That actually happens very often in these games."

So they're learning about words and math, how to cooperate and work as a team, how to find an ally. They're also learning about how to make these kinds of puzzles.

"For different puzzles I have different motivations and different inspirations," Hoyt said. "Quite often I find out that I will go for a jog... and I will let the city and the people kind of inspire me. So if I'm jogging by a bakery at 6 in the morning, I'm looking to think, is that a puzzle, could that be a puzzle, could that be a jumble, is someone saying something that could be a pun?"  

One time he overheard a couple having an argument in a restaurant. He used what the man said in a Jumble. 

"I always wondered if one of them played the Jumble, and then said, 'Wait a second, we said that in a restaurant!'" he said.

Seventh-grader Emma Ruccio said Hoyt has inspired her.

"I never really thought of making a making a giant math bingo board that's at least 10 feet long, and using little plastic plates as bingo chips, but it works," she said.

Credit Javon Franklin

Creating and playing games as part of learning is part of broader trend throughout the education field known as the gamification of learning. Some high tech versions of this involve students making video games, or playing video games that have a strong learning component.

In addition to being a science center, Talcott Mountain is home to a K - 8 school for talented and gifted students.  The school focuses on STEM education, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

Puzzle maker Hoyt spent two days at the center, working to inspire students to be creative -- something that's not always associated with STEM subjects.

"It's an inspiration," said Jonathan Craig, the center's executive director. "That's what we find with kids that are coming through here. They need to get some self confidence, they need to be able to find themselves through exploration with science and technology and any other parts of our curriculum that intrigue them, and as a result, that gets them on their way."

Next year will be the science center's 50th anniversary. Hoyt said he'll continue to work with students, and he's set up a foundation to help him do just that.

This story was co-reported by students at the Journalism and Media Academy magnet school/CPBN Learning Lab satellite campus.