“We teach kids engineering using Legos,” said The New Century School‘s Lego summer camp leader Chretien Mayes simply and succinctly. Mr. Mayes, an aerospace engineer, and co-camp leader Chris Miller, an industrial engineer, are on loan to TNCS from Play-Well TEKnologies, the company that designed these “LEGO-inspired engineering classes for kids K–8.” Play-Well is made up of instructors who are by and large either engineers or scientists of various stripes. “The beauty is,” says Mr. Mayes, “each instructor brings his or her own particular flair and expertise to each camp.”
Now in 23 states, Play-Well has built quite a following from their establishment in California in 1997. TNCS, however, has the proud distinction of being the first Baltimore school to host a Play-Well Lego camp, and Mr. Mayes says that’s not surprising because of the particular TNCS resources, the staff, and the students. “The New Century School has a philosophy and a culture of being hands-on with kids in small classes. That’s us, too—we can provide individual, personalized time with each kid. Basically, we can foster whatever each child is into. Some kids like to build buildings; some prefer to make things go.”
Everything Is Awesome!
Instructors are there to teach basic principles of engineering and physics and then to turn the kids loose to follow whatever interlocking whims they choose. The instructors weave in and out among groups of builders, answering the questions that spring up all over like geysers. A frustrated, “Why isn’t this working?” is met with a patient but no less technical answer, and the child is encouraged to try again, applying the new information to her whirligig—but not before proudly demonstrating her “wiggly tooth.”
Transmissions are a fundamental “building block” in engineering and get a lot of play at Lego camp. They start with a simple pull-back transmission (think of the toy cars that you pull back, hold, and then let fly) and progress from there to gear transmissions and all of the different things that can be done with those. Three or more gears touching makes a “gear train,” which can ultimately produce anything from cars to spinning tops to gondolas.”Overlapping” is another principle and also what the camp instructors teach the kids is like “glue for Legos”—stability and strength are derived from the shared surface area of overlapping bricks. With that concept entrenched, they can design houses, construct bridges, etc. An important point is that no fancy or specific kits are required here, and this is largely so that kids can replicate what they have learned at home. A common complaint about Legos in general among parents is that once their kids put a kit together, they no longer seem to know what to do with the individual pieces or are unwilling to “think outside the box.” “Our thing is,” said Mr. Mayes, “is that we focus on the basics, and then kids can go anywhere from there.” Starting with a simple gear, for example, kids might end up with anything from a monster truck to a ski lift. “Once we get to the level of gear train, you can do this, you can do that—you can do anything you want with it,” Mr. Mayes says he tells kids.
Everything Is Cool When You’re Part of a Team!
Thus, Lego camp boosts kids’ confidence, their creativity, and, importantly, their ability to collaborate. We always aim for individual or group projects that we can mesh together at the end,” says Mr. Mayes. The collaborative project for this camp was a vast, interconnected arch bridge. “Every kid made one and then we put them side by side, covered them with bricks to link them together, and put a road on top. It was probably 5- or 6-feet long by the time we were done,” said Mr. Mayes. “And then the kids sent all of their cars across.” Imagine the sense of accomplishment—not to mention sheer fun—that must have engendered! “And hopefully, the idea is, that we’ll create some future engineers!” said Mr. Mayes.
How well does Play-Well play at TNCS? “I’ve been to other schools that I can tell don’t invest in technology or that ‘outside-the-box’ education,” said Mr. Mayes. “At The New Century School, the kids get all that. In addition, the staff and program directors are so on top of it, here. It’s a really great school.”
Finally, the burning question: What did a Play-Well TEKnologies aerospace engineer think of the Lego movie? “Awesome. If I could miniaturize myself, I wouldn’t mind playing a character in it!” said Mr. Mayes. Pretty convincingly, as a matter of fact!