For years, educators have recognized that children playing with LEGOs exhibit a natural talent in problem-solving and creativity. Because engineering students often have extensive experience with LEGOs, big-name universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Arizona State, University of Nevada-Reno, and Texas A&M are eager to work LEGO into their undergraduate curriculum to engage and retain students.
The latest learning track includes LEGO MINDSTORM, an advanced LEGO robot set with movable and programmable parts that is being used as a teaching tool in undergraduate engineering courses. “It fits well into undergraduate education,” says Howie Choset, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh.
Just a few years ago, there weren’t many students with classroom LEGO experience, “but that trend has definitely been changing,” says Ethan Danahy, a Tufts University professor of engineering.
Freshman engineering students at Tufts, a 10,600-student school in Medford, Mass., use LEGO MINDSTORM sets to experiment with basic principles of engineering and build their own robotics. “In my Intro to Engineering course, I was looking for a platform that could provide a wide range of flexibility for students experimenting on their own, but in a structured way so that it would be accessible by a wide range of learners,” says Danahy. LEGOs, he says, provide access to hands-on, open-ended, project-based engineering problems.
Students’ classroom exposure to LEGO often begins in middle and high school robotics clubs and competitions. David Goral, an engineering mentor for the robotics team at Southington High School in Connecticut credits LEGO with providing students with a familiar platform to experiment with design at an early age.
“A student might have an idea for how to build an arm out for a robot but maybe doesn’t know how to draw it, so he can use LEGO to quickly prototype and convey his ideas,” he says.
LEGO sets are not used in high school robotics competitions, but experimenting with LEGO gives high school students an opportunity to develop ideas efficiently. “Students [prototype] with a LEGO set, and then can translate their ideas into a 120-pound robot for competition. It serves as a pallet for engineering,” says Goral.
In the end, it’s not the LEGOs themselves that matter but rather the skills that students build while using them. “I never look at someone and say he’s a great LEGO engineer,” says Choset. “I watch to see how students interact with LEGOs and see what sorts of skills they have. From my perspective, LEGO is a vehicle to building engineering skills.”