Building excitement about science with little plastic bricks


There is a Lego Statue of Liberty and a Lego eggbeater. Lego skyscrapers and a Lego parking meter. A Lego arena filled with Lego people cheering a Lego robot. A Lego dragster and a Lego bridge over a Lego cavern.

If there is a Lego Heaven, this was it. And my son had just entered the pearly Lego gates.

"Somebody, like, did this for their job?" asked Joe as we entered the Maryland Science Center's Lego exhibition.

"YES!" I thought, pumping my fist. It was a revelation for us both. The kids who would rather play Legos than do anything else can grow up and make a living at it.

John Dion did. He's the project manager for "Invention Adventure," the first touring museum display by Lego, the Danish toy maker whose plastic bricks are surpassed in their penetration of American homes only by Crayola crayons.

"Lego in Europe has developed a number of exhibitions, but they have always been art exhibitions," says Dion. "We thought that in the U.S. it made more sense to develop a science exhibit, because there was such a great need in this country for programs that generate enthusiasm in children for science and technology.

"Our objective was not so much to teach specific principles as it is to create a sense of excitement about science."

"Invention Adventure" will be at the Maryland Science Center through May 29 as part of a three-year North American tour. The highlight of its hugely successful stay will come April 21-23, when kids can watch Lego engineers construct a 10-foot Lego robot.

The exhibit turns on the "Let me do it" slogan of childhood and has piles of bricks for the children to use in building their own bridges, their own race cars, their own earthquake-proof buildings.

As my son and I roamed the display of machines, structures and robotics, Joe instantly recognized each Lego piece from one of his many Lego kits.

Marketing surveys show 90 percent of Lego owners are boys. That figure rises to 99 percent for Technics, big-boy Legos. Only they, it seems, can see what creation is hiding in that pile of odd plastic bits. Like dogs who alone hear that whistle, only boys can hear the fundamental Lego admonition: "You can take me apart. And you can build me again. Only better."

"Lego is a boy thing," said Dion, and he sighed at the admission.

The company has tried everything to reach girls. Pastel building blocks. Happy little Lego village kits instead of pirate or space kits. Nothing has caught the imagination, the devotion, of young girls the way Lego has captured young boys.

Until this exhibit. "During the prototype testing, the exhibit was just as popular with girls. The earthquake station, the raceway station, the bridge station. All of them. We think it may have been the different setting, the museum setting," said Dion.

Or maybe it was the Legomaniac at the top. It's a woman.

"I got into Legos when I was 3, and by age 8, I knew I wanted to play Legos for the rest of my life," says Francie Berger. Today she is model design supervisor for Lego in Enfield, Conn.

She went to Virginia Tech to study architecture ("The next best thing, real bricks, real houses"), but her family thought she would end up owning a toy store -- until she peppered Lego with phone calls and letters and the company responded with a job offer.

"I knew they had guys in Denmark who designed huge models that were shipped all over the world. I wrote and told them they had the bricks here, why not let me design them here?"

Eleven years later, Francie Berger is running a department of designers, "and doing lots of paperwork." But like all Lego executives, she has a bowl of Lego pieces on her desk for three-dimensional doodling.

When Dion came to her with the museum proposal, she helped design the skyscraper display on Lego graph paper.

But she could not resist. Soon she was down on the floor in a pile of Lego bricks, building the prototypes of the miniature urban landmarks now on tour. "I finally got to use my architecture degree."

Her favorite? Fantasy Skyscraper -- layers of white bricks and windows captured forever as they buckle in the first seconds of an earthquake.

"I just did it," Berger demurred and laughed self-consciously. "It's a gift. It's what I do."

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