From toys to engineering tools

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Parents the world over have been touting the benefits of educational toys for decades, but a group of grown men have found a way to turn an educational toy into an educational engineering tool – while having fun. Founded by master builder Tony Graham, the South African LEGO Users Group (zaLUG) was formed to promote the brand while learning new building techniques.

Toys to.toolsIn a recent presentation, Graham discussed some of these, including SNOT, an acronym standing for “studs not on top”, and other advanced techniques like using bricks to create letters and measuring in a new kind of unit. He calls this “Legometry”.

“LEGO has always been an amazing toy, for not only children, but adults too. Especially when you consider just the amount of engineering, design and thought that LEGO puts into each Brick. I cobbled together a brief presentation, based on previous presentations I’ve seen to show exactly how interesting you can make LEGO look, just with a little thought, and maths,” he said in an interview.

Graham is not alone in appreciating the beautiful geometry of LEGO, with engineering enthusiasts the world over using the toy to teach basic engineering principles. The company itself has added ranges that allow people to learn more than just the basics: Its Mindstorm microcomputer brick and software kits make build your own robot easy, and the more complex Technic kit teaches the fundamentals of gears and torque as tow trucks, cranes, and jet planes that really fly are built.

LEGO and real-world structural engineering have two things in common: an understanding of physics and creativity. Using LEGO bricks, bracing, tension and compression, loading constraints, and building to scale become vital in creating a masterpiece that will stand. By combining sensors, servo motors and microprocessors in the new ranges, everything from basic pulleys and belts to computer programming become part of the creative and design process.

The Mindstorm range has its own international online community that shares ideas by uploading plans for new creations to forums and posts videos to YouTube. More importantly, there are leagues and tournaments across the world allowing children to design, build and program a LEGO robot to complete a specific task related to a theme.

With our dismal STEM statistics, South African schools could look to LEGO fandom as a great example of how the basic principles can be taught more effectively. Instead of trying to explain abstract concepts like algebra or trigonometry, teachers could let students build a LEGO robot so they could see how maths and science come into play in the real world.

crown publications logo reversed

Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.