Are Legos the Answer to America’s STEM Problem?

Could the answer to a shortage of science, engineering, technology and math professionals in the U.S. be hidden under a mountain of Legos? That seemed to have been the message that organizers of BrickCon 2012, a convention for Lego lovers held in Seattle last weekend, wished to deliver to the public at large.

Although the first BrickCon had a rather modest goal of providing a friendly gathering place for Lego aficionados around the country and beyond, this has morphed over the years into a popular movement aimed at transforming education and inspiring future engineers by introducing them to the wonders of building.

Michael Venables of Forbes Magazine interviewed  Cathy Webb, who attended BrickCon in her capacity as a technology teacher and learning plan adviser for the Edmonds Heights K-12 School in Edmonds, Washington. Over the course of the conversation, Webb spoke about the relationship between Lego and Lego-like games and STEM education.

Webb explained that in her school, students get an opportunity to play around with the brick toys as early as kindergarten. The initial experimentation leads to participation in a Junior FIRST Lego League. As students progress, they take part in the FIRST Lego League aimed at 9-14 year old students. Those who still retain a passion for building all the way through high schoo can take part in FIRST Tech Challenge which melds mechanical building with robotics.

But in my school lab, we also work on the architectural piece. We start with the language of math, which is Lego, [using] shapes, colors and then a mathematical description of the object, one-by-eighths, two-by-fours, etc. And, everything [made] of Lego bricks is described in those mathematical terms. So, from very young kids, they start learning that [mathematical] language, and as they get older, they build in simple machines.

The robotics component, which capitalizes on the students’ desire to make things move, allows Webb to introduce kids to the rudiments of computer programming earlier in their academic careers. Using one of the commonly used programming languages to power robots, RobotC or LabVIEW, children can start picking up a bit of programming as early as 3rd grade. This both nurtures the enthusiasm for the discipline and lays down foundation for more advanced study later on.

In replying to the question about her greatest wish for her students as they pursue STEM subjects after they leave the Edmonds Heights, Webb said that she hoped that they would apply the problem-solving skills developed playing with toys to some of the major problems facing the world today.

I’m confident that we are slowly building the support for STEM education that we desperately need in the U.S. With teachers such as Cathy Webb, I remain inspired that we’re gearing kids up for the engineering and programming careers that will build the future of America’s enterprise and take us to the 22nd century. One Lego brick at a time.