How Lego Is Constructing the Next Generation of Engineers- page 2 | Innovation | Smithsonian
Lego’s new Mindstorms EV3 kit lets users build 17 different robots and program them directly through an “intelligent brick.” (Ian Allen)

How Lego Is Constructing the Next Generation of Engineers

With programmable robots and student competitions, Lego is making “tinkering with machines cool again”

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Half of all stateside middle schools and about a quarter of all elementary and high schools have folded Mindstorms into their curricula. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a Lego Chair, which is not a chesterfield made of Lego bricks, but an endowed professorship at the college’s media lab. At Tufts, the robotics sets have evoked an equal number of dissertations and disquisitions with catchy titles like “Teaching Basic Cardio-Vascular Mechanics with Lego Models: A High School Case Study.”

Rogers worked with Lego to develop Robolab—a robotic approach to learning science and math—that’s been used in some 50,000 schools worldwide and has been translated into 15 languages. He stresses design thinking, the idea that you frame a problem by first imagining its solution. His approach is based on demonstration, critique and iteration: Everything can be made better, even failure. “The kids make an educated guess and then run experiments to prove their theories,” he says. “They see that there is no right or wrong answer, just an infinite number of ways to address a problem. Learning that is as critical to engineering as it is to life.”

Samuel Beckett exhorted: “Fail better.”

***

In Danish, Lego is pronounced LEE-go. In English, the construction craze that has gripped the civilized world is pronounced LEEgoMAINia. An Italian artist painstakingly re- created the works of old masters in Legos, including da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. A Chicago artist has designed Lego mini-scale sets of the White House, the Sydney Opera House and 15 other eminent edifices. Others have gone to extraordinary lengths to assemble the world’s largest Lego bridge (122 feet), the world’s longest Lego train track (4,923 feet) and the world’s tallest Lego tower (106 feet, seven inches; 450,000 bricks). It would take 40 billion eight-stud Lego bricks to build a stack to the moon, though no one has yet attempted this.

Not only does every significant new NASA spacecraft and mission now beget its own Lego model, but astronauts aboard the International Space Station have built them in orbit. There are Lego Darth Vader clocks, Lego Ninjago video games and a Lego Quidditch match. A year from now the animated adventure film LEGO: The Piece of Resistance is due in theaters. Featuring characters voiced by Will Ferrell and Morgan Freeman, the cartoon promises to be a real, ahem, blockbuster. At last count, four of the top 10 children’s chapter books on the New York Times best-seller list were from Lego. One of them, The Lego Ideas Book, carries the tag line “Unlock Your Imagination.”

Imagination is what has guided Lego from its founding in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, a Geppetto-like carpenter with a small workshop in Billund, a rural hamlet in Jutland with the topography of a pancake. In a bid to beat the Great Depression, Kristiansen started making brightly colored wooden cars and pull-along ducks. Having concluded that his toy company needed a more evocative name than Billund Maskinsnedkeri, he truncated the expression leg godt, Danish for “play well.’’ In a fortuitous coincidence, Lego means “I put together” in Latin.

Lego, as understood by most adults, began in 1949, shortly after Kristiansen bought Denmark’s first injection-molding machine and began cranking out toys with some plastic parts. According to Lego legend, he happened upon some hollow, British-made blocks called Kiddicraft, which inspired his own Automatic Binding Bricks, the forerunner of the Lego brick. The design breakthrough was a studs-and-tubes mechanism that allowed the bricks to snap together, hold fast and yet somehow come easily apart. “Legos are the ultimate symbols of Danish character,” Niels Pugholm says. “They’re unassuming little objects that depend on logic and geometry. Perhaps because Denmark has so few natural resources, ingenuity is treasured.”

In 1958—the year of Kristiansen’s death—Lego patented its click-fit technology, which the company calls “clutch power.” The key is precision engineering; the tolerance of Lego’s Danish Modern prongs is one-fiftieth of a millimeter, ten times finer than a human hair. Over the next half-century Lego became one of the world’s most beloved toys. Roughly half the parents on the planet have been woken up by a disturbance in the middle of the night, dashed groggily into their kid’s bedroom and stepped barefoot on a Lego brick.

“Children are fantastic little creatures,” Mads Nipper, the company’s marketing chief , has said. “Next to drunk people, they are the only truly honest people on earth.” As the millennium approached, Lego exploited that honesty by going on a branding bender. The family-run firm made forays into children’s clothing, baby products, jewelry, video games and theme parks.

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About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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