5 Things Lego Blocks Can Teach You About Structural Engineering

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Could your love of Lego blocks turn into an increased knowledge of physics?

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5 Things Lego Blocks Can Teach You About Structural Engineering

Block by block, one plastic section at a time, children and adults around the world compete to build the planet's tallest Lego structure. One recent record breaker, measuring 102 feet (31.09 meters) high, used roughly 500,000 blocks to rise high into the city air [source: World Records Academy].

But for those of us not looking to break records, constructing even a foot-tall design takes forethought. Will your structure be balanced and not tip over? Is the base wide enough to support it? Can your Lego creation withstand nature's forces -- or even the family cat?

Toying around and experimenting with Lego extends beyond childhood play time. In fact, these blocks and products present a hands-on opportunity to learn the basics of structural engineering, a field in which experts examine similar questions while crafting buildings, bridges, cars, dams, stadiums and other large structures.

The ultimate Lego empire and real-world structural engineering have two things in common: an understanding of physics and creativity. As long as you know the limitations of the materials you're working with, there will be fewer issues in conjuring up your plastic creation -- and perhaps other structures as you become more advanced.

Scale is everything, especially if you want to build a replica of a famous landmark or building. Read why scale is also important to engineers on the following page.

After-school and Community Lego Building

The Lego faithful have created several programs to foster learning and fun for children and teens. First Lego League, with teams on every continent, challenges kids to design Lego robots with added functions, including cameras, wiring, motors, wheels and computer processors to solve specific problems. Anyone can form a team to compete. Universities and school districts also have competitions, where kids, teens and adults dabble in basic building or create high-tech robots to perform tasks. These projects help reinforce firsthand learning [source: Vamplew].

5: Building to Scale

Concepts of scale are important for both Lego building and structural engineering. After all, you want to build something that's big enough for your toy minifigure and his friends, right?

Well, the same concept applies to engineers creating spaces large enough to accommodate a desirable number of people. Even considering the end result, there's a more important reason to think about scale: it requires planning and modeling your structure before tackling the real thing -- a must for structural engineers and architects.

Say you want to build a rendition of the Eiffel Tower with Lego bricks. Before gathering the number of pieces you'll need, it's a good idea to determine the scale of your project and how big it will be. This allows you to create the gist of the structure with the bricks on a smaller scale. Building to scale also puts building materials into perspective, requiring you to admit their limitations. The bigger the structure, the more ease you'll have incorporating curves and arches into it, even while using rectangular bricks. If you're especially up for the challenge, you can use math to downsize previous Lego projects by dividing sections into more manageable sizes.

The sky's the limit -- even with Lego products. But is your structure functional? Find out more on the next page.

4: Loading Constraints

Loading constraints can influence how structural engineers approach a given project. Though the term might not sound familiar, it's basically a way of questioning what will happen when weight or other factors act on a structure or object.

By using Lego bricks, you can better picture two basic principles engineers consider: static loading and dynamic loading. Static loading includes the weight and pressure on the structure while it's stationary, while dynamic loading refers to how outside forces act on the structure while it's being used. For example, every building has its physical limits for what it can support -- its static loading capacity. But what about something that's a bit more mobile -- such as an airplane that's crafted to accommodate passengers and always changing flying conditions? Engineers must consider these factors to ensure that when a plane is dynamically loaded (with people, and in midair) it's safe and efficient.

To test dynamic loading constraints, build a Lego bridge and then use a remote control car or wooden box cars of various weights to look at how they affect the structure as they move across it. Does one of the beams buckle under the added weight? Toying around with dynamic loading is far more effective than reading about it in a text book, where weights and numbers aren't tangible.

Next up, we'll talk about what every serious Lego builder needs to know.

Structural Engineer vs. Architect    

Though the two professions often collaborate, structural engineers and architects perform different jobs. Often, the architect comes up with a design and works alongside a structural engineer to look at the safety and effectiveness of the plan.

3: How to Brace

Knowing how to use bricks to reinforce the strength of a structure will not only give you an edge while using Lego products, but it could also help you wrap your brain around the complex structures throughout your Lego community.

Let's say you create a quaint miniature village and realize one building isn't very stable and it topples over. Upon picking it up, you realize it's still relatively intact. Should you scrap it?

Not necessarily. See if you can provide extra support through bracing, or adding additional pieces for support. For a structural engineer, trusses, columns and beams should do the trick, but connector pegs and axles will provide extra support for his Lego counterpart. Also, it's wise to ask yourself: Were you stacking mismatched pieces or were you building with the same types of bricks on top of one another? Using the same types of pieces for stacking is a good strategy to make structures more stable.

Geography and weather patterns influence how engineers create a structure. How can you test these conditions using Lego products?

2: Designing Around Nature

Several competitions and visual experiments have used Lego projects to model the pitfalls of structural engineering during natural events such as earthquakes. Competitors learn how seismic loading, or the extra stress a building endures during an earthquake, affects their small-scale structures.

What both Lego builders and structural engineers collectively admit is that creating a sturdy model -- or even a real building, for that matter -- requires understanding a range of seismic waves and the problems they pose. Since some areas in the Northwest experience both low and high frequency quakes, engineers are challenged to design building structures that can withstand both.

To create sturdier buildings that can withstand quakes, students craft structures with heavier tops or insert support trusses between floors or layers of buildings, much like what a structural engineer team would do. Then, they challenge their structures by placing them in earthquake simulators to see which design works best. The idea is to let natural innovation take hold, as some projects put forth new ideas that are worth testing on a larger scale.

What keeps components of your Lego bridge together? Find out which structural engineering concept you can play around with in your living room on the next page.

Effects on Learning

One study found that high school students who participated in a Lego First program reported feeling more comfortable and excited about engineering and science. [source: Melchior et al.]. Even teens with diverse backgrounds benefited from maintaining personal responsibility for portions of the Lego projects.

1: Tension and Compression

Some bridges seem like they defy physics, with massive pieces suspended midair. It turns out the same concept that makes this possible also works on a smaller scale with Lego projects at home.

Tension (the pulling forces on materials) and compression (the pressure on materials), give many structures a floating effect. For Lego lovers, you can try suspend portions of structures by creating your own arches and bridges. Truss bridges, in particular, use tension and compression to get the job done. It's also important to keep in mind your material's stiffness, as it will give more or less when under additional pressure.

Click ahead for more tips on structural engineering of the Lego variety.

Lots More Information

Related ArticlesSources
  • Hamilton, Linda. "Friction and Car Building." LEGO Links of Linda Hamilton. April 7, 2001 (Sept. 17, 2011) http://www.marshall.edu/lego/lessonplans/Car1.html
  • The Institution of Structural Engineers."About Structural Engineering: The Learning Zone." (Sept. 10, 2011) http://www.istructe.org/about_structural_engineering/learning_zone/Pages/default.aspx
  • Kuester, Falco, and Tara Hutchinson. "A Virtualized Laboratory for Earthquake Engineering Education." Computer Applications in Engineering Education. 15, 1. p. 15-29. 2007 (Sept. 10, 2011) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cae.20091/abstract
  • LEGO Engineering. "Lesson Plan/Activity: Sturdy Building." (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.legoengineering.com/index.php?option=com_community&Itemid=59&c=item&id=235
  • Melchior, Alan, Cohen, Faye, Cutter, Tracy, and Thomas Leavitt. "An Evaluation of the FIRST Robotics Competition Participant and Institutional Impacts." April 2005 (Sept. 10, 2011)
  • http://428355761930069868.weebly.com/uploads/6/3/7/1/6371896/first_study.pdf
  • Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, University of California, Berkeley. "Learning with LEGO: School-University Partnership (SUP) for Earthquake Engineering Education." (Sept. 10, 2011) http://peer.berkeley.edu/education/learning_lego.html
  • USFIRST.org. "U.S. FIRST: About Us." (Sept. 10, 2011) http://www.usfirst.org/aboutus/vision
  • Vamplew, Peter. "LEGO Mindstorms Robots as a Platform for Teaching Reinforcement Learning." International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Science and Technology. 2004 (Sept. 10, 2011) http://eprints.utas.edu.au/104/
  • Wang, Eric, LaCombe, Jeffrey, & Rogers, Chris. "Using LEGO Bricks to Conduct Engineering Experiments." Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition. 2004 (Sept. 10, 2011) http://soa.asee.org/paper/conference/paper-view.cfm?id=20495
  • World Records Academy. "Tallest LEGO Tower: Brazil Children Set World Record." April 11, 2011 (Sept. 10, 2011) http://www.worldrecordsacademy.org/biggest/tallest_LEGO_Tower_Brazil_children_sets_world_record_112203.html