LEGOs® promote engineering and creativity for all

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While imperfect when representing demographics, LEGO® is still a great tool for creativity and beginning engineering for children of all kinds.

the observatoryHave you ever stepped on a LEGO® barefoot in the dark?  To say that it’s unpleasant is like saying a volcano can be used for warmth.  Technically, it’s true but it doesn’t capture the reality of the situation.  As the otherwise borderline unpalatable comic Tim Hawkins once famously said, “I think we should fight the terrorists with LEGOs®, I really do.” Tim continued, “find a bunch of caves, throw a bunch of LEGOs® at them” and he mimed the pathetic limp we could expect from our unfortunate enemies.  Whether or not this last plan could work (and I’m certain it would) we know that LEGOs® are both fun and powerful.  However, the company that makes them is descended from carpenters and is incredibly male centered.  Does that mean we shouldn’t buy LEGOs®?  I don’t think so.  LEGOs® are useful in promoting spatial awareness and engineering, for teaching creativity and teamwork.

Ignore the story on the box; write your own. It’s really the genius of LEGOs® that allows them such wide appeal and power.”

— Riley Wheaton, Columnist

LEGO® has come under heavy and justified fire for not offering quality toys for girls in their lineup.  While they have knights, firemen, and wizards aplenty, they’re sorely lacking in strong female characters for girls to identify with.  After this incredibly moving letter from a young fan and aspiring LEGO® master builder pleading with LEGO® to “make more LEGO® girl people and let them go on adventures” they released the now famous “Research Institute” which was so popular that by the time I went to order one it was sold out for the foreseeable future.  While I’m excited that one of my oldest recognized brand names is updating itself I’m still frustrated at how slowly they’re moving.  Long story short, is LEGO® making progress?  Definitely, but they need to get it in gear!  However, I’d be doing a disservice to you if I let it stand at that.  This column is about nuance so I owe it to you to honestly lay out some of LEGO’s® noteworthy benefits as well as this disappointing stain.

LEGOs® spur a young fascination with engineering.  I used to love going over to my cousin Nathan’s house since his basement was a museum of LEGO® structures.  He bought the biggest and the most complicated things he could find and he built them with care and precision.  It created a walkthrough that some would consider spooky but which left me in wonder.  He’s now a successful mechanical engineer travelling across the country to conferences with his peers exploring how to build the medical devices of tomorrow.  Nathan’s not alone; Tiffany Tseng is a graduate researcher at MIT and remembers fondly her days learning about construction, geometry, and space through LEGOs®.  She says that her colleagues often “visit the lab and tell us how LEGO® inspired them to study engineering.”  Whether it’s the mindstorms robots or just a house with a roof that needs to stay up, these little bricks can teach kids about their physical world.

A generation of young engineers are standing on LEGO® shoulders, but the brand isn’t doing nearly enough for gender equality. How do we solve this dichotomy?”

— Riley Wheaton, columnist

LEGOs® are fantastic teaching aids.  When teachers try to encourage creativity they sometimes struggle, but it turns out the solution may be LEGOs® as Christoper Pike claims in his 2002 study on the impact of LEGOs® as teaching tools of creativity.  I think Jill VanWey, preschool teacher extraordinaire, would agree with him as she uses these bricks in her classroom in a variety of illuminating ways.  Building with LEGOs® in the classroom also fosters teamwork, and most of all, compromise.  Back in the day I had to work very hard to let go of control of the collaborative building process with the phrase “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” but that which only almost kills us makes us stronger, so it was with me.

Finally, LEGOs® are also fantastic around the house…  Or as the house.  From coasters to key racks it appears that just about any household item can be built with LEGOs®.  Some of these are definite keepers and some may be more trouble than they’re worth but your own tolerance will determine how many of these 24 you choose to acquire for your own dwelling.

So LEGOs® teach us about creativity and about compromise.  A generation of young engineers are standing on LEGO® shoulders, but the brand isn’t doing nearly enough for gender equality.  How do we solve this dichotomy?  Should we all boycott LEGOs® and burn them in a bonfire?  Should we support them in the hopes that they’ll change their ways?  There’s not an easy answer.  This company does good work that assists in the education and joy of many around the world and connects different ages and cultures like very little else can, but they’re disappointing us in a really important way.  

Here’s what I think: ignore the story on the box; write your own.  It’s really the genius of LEGOs® that allows them such wide appeal and power.  So build a castle and let the princess save the prince.  Build a monster truck, and who’s to say if it’s male or female?  Teach the kids to make a house and send the mom off the work while the dad stays home.  Whatever story you want to tell is right there waiting for you.  More than anything else, though, let’s use these bricks and robots in classrooms and teach kids that the world is theirs no matter who says otherwise, and let’s recommit to confounding those Danish carpenters with the most brilliant generation of kickass female engineers and scientists the world has ever seen.  We’ve been given a great tool, it’d be a shame to let it go to waste.

So go on, pick a brick.

PS: I know this is just the start of a conversation.  I encourage anyone who was interested at some point while reading this column to follow me on twitter.  You can comment on this page or tweet your opinions to @rileyobservato1.  I look forward to talking about your experiences with LEGOs®, how we can use them to educate the youth, and how we can open opportunities for women to become engineers or to pursue other fields of science.

PPS: A few weeks ago a lego “brickumentary” with unprecedented access was released and it’s now available for purchase on Amazon.  I highly recommend it.