Build a big learning impact with tiny bricks
By Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur
Almost every child enjoys building with LEGO. Those familiar plastic bricks are painful when stepped on in bare feet, but they open up a world of imaginative play.
Using them, students can learn to follow building instructions or copy a model. LEGOs can help with the development of spatial skills. They also can be used to make STEM education in the classroom more interesting and fun.
The LEGO company itself offers many kits and resources specifically for using LEGOs in science, technology, engineering, and math. They also offer face-to-face professional development programs as well as free online resources for educators. Find out more at bit.ly/LEGOeducationresources.
LEGO offers two simple-machine building sets — one designed for the primary grades, the other intended for middle-school students. These sets include gears, levers, pulleys, wheels, and axles to help with instruction about simple and compound machines.
A more advanced set is the LEGO WeDo 2.0. These sets are designed to introduce students to computational thinking and engineering principles. Each set comes with a motor, motion sensor, tilt sensor, and building elements. The corresponding curriculum pack is intended for second- through fourth-grade students. It has lessons dealing with the life, physical, earth, and space sciences in addition to engineering.
For older students, the LEGO Mindstorms Education EV3 Core Set offers an introduction to robotics. The EV3 Intelligent Brick is a computer that can be programmed to control motors and collect sensor feedback. Programming is done by dragging and dropping icons in the accompanying software.
The above sets are very useful and can open up a whole new world of exploration for your students, but what if you only have a limited budget and a collection of assorted bricks? Fortunately, there are still many STEM-related activities your class can do.
LEGO bricks are great manipulatives for learning basic math. Students can use the bricks as counters to help with simple math equations. Teachers can also create cards with specific math problems to solve: providing the numbers to be added or challenging students to come up with various sums that add up to a given number. To use the cards multiple times, laminate them or put them in plastic sleeves so they can be written on with a marker and then wiped clean.
Bricks can also be used in multiplication and area problems. The studs provide a visual representation of the product or area being determined.
Even fractions can be demonstrated with bricks.
Bricks are also useful for learning about patterns and symmetry. Depending on the age of the students, you can create a pattern and have students replicate it, or they can come up with their own repeating patterns. For symmetry, divide a base plate in half and have students create a mirror image on both sides.
You can even prove the Pythagorean Theorem ( a2 + b2 = c2 ) for a right triangle using LEGO. Find out how at bit.ly/LEGOPythagorean.
First, use three base plates and single-stud-width bricks to create the right triangle. Here is a 6-8-10 triangle. You will want to have the sides be one color and the hypotenuse be a different color.
Next square the sides and the hypotenuse. When you square the three sides, you are visually creating a square with a side length equal to the original side.
Then, to prove that the squares of the two sides equal the square of the hypotenuse, take the side bricks and place them on top of the hypotenuse bricks. (Note: it can be a bit of a puzzle to get all the bricks to fit perfectly.)
LemonLimeAdventures.com shared this simple science experiment utilizing LEGOs to study water displacement (bit.ly/LEGOdisplacement). Fill a measuring cup with 100 or 200 ml of water. Challenge students to add enough of the same size bricks to raise the water by 50 ml. Record their findings. What happens if they change the size of the brick used? What if they change the amount of liquid?
MIT offers educational resources for using LEGOs with chemistry at bit.ly/MITMolecules. Students can build molecules as well as explore how chemical compounds and reactions work. Some topics covered include photosynthesis, air, and oceans.
Building and using LEGO racers combines engineering and math. Who can build the fastest racer? Use a stopwatch to time the racers on a given incline. Try different slopes. Older students can calculate the slope of the incline. Record your findings and encourage students to draw conclusions from the data.
Another fun engineering challenge is to create a LEGO zipline. Have students design and create a carrier to send a LEGO Minifigure on a ride. Attach a rope to a chair or table, attach your carrier, and then attach the other end of the rope to an object of a different height. Bring the carrier to the high side, and then let it go. Does the carrier survive the trip, or do alterations need to be made? Does the carrier make it all the way across, or do you need to adjust the slope of the rope?
LEGOs can also be used to study earthquake-resistant engineering. Can students build an earthquake-proof skyscraper? What happens if they alter the height and width of the structure? Do building styles matter (such as the way bricks are connected)? Scientific American offers directions for building a simple shake table to test the stability of the buildings (bit.ly/earthquakeproof).
Using LEGO in STEM Education is a fun way to get students excited and engaged in science, technology, education, and math. For more ideas, check out these resources:
The STEM laboratory offers links to 22 LEGO based STEM Activities for Pre-K through Elementary School bit.ly/LEGOStemlab.
Real Life at Home shows how to use LEGO to do double-digit addition and subtraction bit.ly/LEGOaddsubtract.
Find lessons designed for use with young children in Brick Building 101: 20 LEGO Activities to Teach Kids about STEM by Courtney Sanchez with Jessica Wright (Walter Foster, Jr. 2018).
LEGO Power Functions Idea Book, Volume 1: Machines and Mechanisms by Yoshihito Isogawa is a photograph-based instruction book for using LEGO Technic gears, motors, gadgets, and other moving elements.
LLC Stem Mindset offers a series of math texts utilizing LEGO. These are designed for primary grades bit.ly/LLCStemMindset.
Searching Pinterest for LEGO STEM as well as LEGO math and LEGO science will yield links to many more ideas.
Share creative ways you use LEGO in the classroom: tweet us at @CatholicTchrMag.
LEGO and the Minifigure are trademarks of the LEGO group, which did not sponsor or endorse this article.
Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur, MAAT, is editor of TodaysCatholicHomeschooling.com
and is a homeschooling mother of three children.
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