COSAM Math Instructor Talks LEGOs®, Puzzles and Scrabble
Eric Harshbarger is a man of many talents. From professional LEGO® building, to puzzle designing and Scrabble competitions, the Auburn University Mathematics instructor keeps busy.
“I have all these different interests that come and go and are always competing for my time,” Harshbarger said.
Harshbarger grew up in Auburn and graduated from the Auburn University Mathematics Department with a Bachelor of Science in 1992, and a Master of Science in 1994. He moved to California in the late ’90s to work in the computer industry, but moved back to Auburn in 1999 and has lived here since.
After returning to Auburn, he found himself with a lot of free time and began creating large-scale LEGO® designs and posting them online. He soon began receiving requests for creations such as building LEGO® designs for companies looking to market their business.
“I never worked for the LEGO® company, but I was the first person in the world to make a living out of it outside of the company,” Harshbarger said.
One of the LEGO® designs Harshbarger is probably known best for around Auburn is his LEGO® replica of Samford Hall that he built in 2011.
“Growing up in Auburn and having played with LEGO® bricks my whole life, whenever I would walk by Samford Hall I would always look at the architecture and the colors and angles and always think that it could probably be build out of LEGO® bricks,” he said.
From creating the design to special ordering the pieces, the replica took a month to construct. Harshbarger said he is proud of the finished product, which is displayed mostly at his home, but throughout Auburn at different times of the year. He has even sold a few replicas.
“For anyone who has gone to Auburn, it’s a very recognizable thing,” he said. “It took a long time, finding the finely crafted pieces and putting them together, but I was very pleased with the outcome.”
Harshbarger also created the LEGO® design located on the second floor of Parker Hall titled “Twenty-One Squares.” The LEGO® creation answers the question, “can a square be partitioned into a number of smaller squares such that no two of the smaller are the same size?”
“The inherent geometry and squareness of the LEGO® bricks very much reinforces the underlying theme of the square dissection problem; it is a natural fit," Harshbarger is quoted on the plaque. “Furthermore, by employing a material more commonly thought of as a popular toy, I hope to draw the audience closer to the work. Too often mathematics is not considered ‘fun,’ and yet here we see that it is so closely related to one of the most popular toys of all time.”
Puzzle and game designs
Harshbarger is also well known for his work in puzzle and game design. His Digits in a Box toy has been produced by Popular Playthings since 2007. In 2009, Wired magazine featured an optical illusion puzzle of his design in 2009. His puzzle TicTac's Tactics won Jury Honorable Mention at the 2018 International Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition.
He said he has been doing professional puzzle designing on and off for about 15 years. He even creates the puzzles for COSAM’s AMP’d (Auburn Mathematical Puzzle Challenge) competition. He has also hosted puzzle parties once a year in Auburn for 13 years.
“It was sort of scavenger hunt for friends,” he said. “It would be all-night adventures and more than 100 people, sometimes from other countries, would participate. But it’s a lot of work, so it’s on indefinite hiatus.”
You may have seen Harshbarger’s fliers around campus looking for Scrabble players. Among all of his other interests, Scrabble is currently at the top of the list. Harshbarger travels about once a month to locations such as Delaware and New Orleans to compete in tournaments.
“I felt like I needed a hobby and I had heard that there were Scrabble clubs and tournaments,” he said. “I had played Scrabble casually with my family and enjoyed the game. Around 2001 I needed something to fill some extra time and thought I’d try it out.”
He joined a Scrabble club in Birmingham that introduced him to competitions.
“It’s a fun game, even if you don’t play competitively,” he said. “I do like the competitive play. At tournaments it is a whole other level of play. I would guess that a very strong casual player would probably be thrilled to score 200-250 points in a game, where a typical tournament game, if I’m having a decent tournament I’ll score at least 400 points per game. I’m not trying to brag … it’s just another level of play.”
He added that he usually plays for about three or four years and then takes about the same amount of time off. He recently picked it back up in September.
“After that amount of time I usually get tired of it and burnt out,” he said. “To be a strong competitive player you have to study and memorize words. That can get a little boring.”
Harshbarger said he’d love to help Auburn students improve their Scrabble game.
“I could show someone how to improve their game by 50 points and beat all their friends,” he said. “I would think with Auburn being a university town, there are probably a lot of people that could be very good players. Even if they don’t want to play in tournaments, and just want to play some good games of Scrabble, I’m all for that.”