With the rousing success of The Lego Movie, along with its many offshoots currently in production (Ninjago, Lego Batman and Lego Movie 2) and a documentary to be released in theaters this month (A Lego Brickumentary), there’s never been a better time for fans of the multi-colored building blocks. But there is also a serious scientific side to Legos, and researchers at Tufts University have long used the bricks for engineering education.

Sloan Science and Film spoke with Dr. Merredith Portsmore, Associate Director for Tuft’s Center for Engineering Education and Outreach about their interdisciplinary center devoted to hands-on Lego-based learning. Co-author of several journal articles on engineering education (“Advancing engineering education in P-12 classrooms,” “Kindergarten robotics: Using robotics to motivate math, science, and engineering literacy in elementary school”), Portsmore talked about the reversibility of Legos, the most complicated Lego sets, and the power of creative thinking.

Sloan Science and Film: Why are Legos specifically incorporated into teaching engineering as opposed to other tools? Why not regular blocks?

Merredith Portsmore: The engineering education movement really started in the mid-90s when people began looking at the STEM pipeline, and thinking about why people weren’t pursuing these disciplines and why kids didn’t know how to do STEM well. That’s why our work started. It was important for us that kids were doing the same kinds of things that engineers were doing. Engineering is open-ended problem solving, where you figure out what’s wrong, then brainstorm, and then come up with a conclusion. So we came to Lego because that’s the most kid-friendly tool-set, where they could make things that work. Lego came out with their first robotics product 1998. And then, all of a sudden, we had motors, and sensors and programming, where kids could make everything from robotic fish feeders to robotic pancake makers. It was the discipline of engineering in a kid-friendly package.

SSF: What are the different learning levels associated with Lego sets. Even adults would be challenged by some of these advanced sets, right?

MP: Absolutely. We use Lego robotics in our first-year engineering program at Tufts, and some of our advanced engineers will use them for a quick proto-typing tool. So on a basic level, what’s great about Legos is how they’re brilliant in their reversibility. I just ran a workshop where we were doing things with toilet paper rolls and balsa wood, which is all great, but once you’ve committed to a design, you can’t change it that easily. Lego affords the opportunity to make changes to your design or find a better way to do it. One of our introductory activities is “A Chair for Mr. Bear”: You give a 5-year-old a teddy bear and you say, build a chair that keeps this guy up. And they can start creating and playing, and it’s not as hard for them to make changes. You can model almost any mechanical system with a Lego set.

SSF: What is the most complicated Lego set from an engineering perspective?

MP: The ones we use the most are the new Mindstorm EV3 kits. That’s what we use in outreach programs and our undergraduate programs. They not only have the mechanical components, but they also interface with different software environments. We used it with LabVIEW, which is a programming language that our undergraduates will use when they go off into the real world.

SSF: Are there any examples from your own research where you’ve seen the application of these toys in engineering instruction?

MP: There’s a paper we published on Lego-based science instruction. It was your core elementary science content, such as simple machines, properties of materials, properties of sound, but we developed this plan with an engineering focus—a musical instrument; build a people mover. And with this Lego-based curriculum, we saw how the kids performed relative to others, and they learned as well or better than the traditional instruction. And there are a lot of possible reasons for that: having this physical material to work with as well as having this design context. So all the things they were learning were grounded in the fact that they had to build something—so there’s a reason they’re trying to figure out, say, the difference between frequency and pitch.

SSF: How much of your research is being adopted?

MP: It’s hard to quantify. We get more and more requests from people who want to use these types of tools and approaches. We’re launching an online graduate program in engineering education. We’re seeing a heightened interest all around. But I think the discourse and rhetoric on testing is a big challenge for all of us doing hands-on learning, because standard assessments don’t really tap into the things kids are doing when they’re building or designing.

SSF: Is there a gender difference when it comes to Legos and learning? Because Lego blocks are considered more of a boy toy, are there challenges associated with getting girls excited?

MP: We haven’t done any formal gender studies. But since our work is in early education, such as in first grade, girls still have a lot of chances to develop those skills. It helps to let girls dig into certain challenges. The flash and crash of robots is not necessarily what brings girls in. We know from other other research that context is important—for example, why are we doing this? Who is this for? So we feel like if we can contextualize these hands-on challenges—like designing a device that helps a dog whose back legs are paralyzed—it really makes sense to them. These types of rich challenges engage lots of different students, but particularly girls.

SSF: Are there any principles of engineering that Legos are really good at helping kids grasp?

MP: At this point, it’s great for the whole engineering-design process. What you’ll see in an engineering curriculum—approaching a problem, researching possible solutions, prototyping, testing, redesign—those are the core practices of engineering that are great to do with Legos, because you can try things, and you can redesign, It’s a great integration with simple machines and robotics.

SSF: Working with kids, are there any other specific examples where you’ve watched kids really get some kind of engineering concept, or a eureka moment?

MP: Any time you start challenges where you need to haul something or build something. For example, we just did a workshop where we were building bridges, and put accelerometers on them and looked at the correlation between action and data, and what that can tell you, and you can see it’s helping them make sense of the world around them.

SSF: With the explosion of Legos in pop culture, are you seeing more interest in them in educational areas?

MP: I am not sure. There has always been an interest from all kinds of teachers, so it’s nice to see it go a little more mainstream. But I don’t think I can point to anything specific. But Legos have always been wildly popular. We offer a camp for kids, and they sell out in ten minutes.

SSF: Is there anything else about the program you’re doing that you think is important to know?

MP: Overall, I think the cool thing about Legos and engineering education is that it’s really empowering kids. Oftentimes in school, it’s all about getting the right answer, but with Lego engineering, it’s about generating their own ideas, and whether their ideas are worktable or unworkable. And I think that’s so important. With all these big challenges facing the world—understanding the brain, clean water—we need to let kids start to do creative thinking now. You can’t tell them, ‘Okay, now you’re 19; now you can start coming up with your own ideas.’ We need to give all kids the opportunity to do this powerful rigorous creative thinking to have a creative workforce.