Control Software / Robotics

STEM Education Can Start with Cool Toys

Legos, Blocks, Plastic or Wood Models, Even the Lowly Popsicle Stick Can Be Basic Training for the Budding Engineer

By Jim Montague

Legos are admittedly great, but they aren't the only game in town. With all the recent coverage of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and related competitions, it can seem like the legendary plastic blocks from Denmark sprang out of nowhere, took over the world, and are the only option for building systems. This is not true, and it would be good to remember it this holiday season, especially when you're seeking gifts or have some extra time to spend playing with your kids or grandkids.

Legos are just one among many construction toys and hobby sets that all provide excellent opportunities for young builders to play and have fun. First with my brother and more recently with my daughters, I've been hip-deep in Legos many times. However, I also remember building with everything from big, plain wooden blocks to little, colored wooden blocks to Tinker Toys, dominos, playing cards, popsicle sticks and pretty much anything else we could get our hands on. I think mine and most other moms and dads drew the line at gravy-filled canals, dams and levies in the mashed potatoes.

See also: Five Steps to Better STEM Education

The value of these activities is they help to instill and develop the spatial, mechanical and perceptual appreciation and the abstract and critical thinking skills that are the foundation of all good engineering practices. I believe understanding physical forces and environments is especially important in today's mostly on-screen environments dominated by video games, CAD, software programming and the Internet. Connecting with the real world is even more crucial for staying grounded when building virtual ones.

You might start out giving children toys and hopefully playing with them and end up providing something much more valuable—the ability to become innovative engineers.

 Of course, blocks are only interesting for so long, but FIRST Robotics and all the latest technical competitions have their predecessors and can be put into historical contexts, too. I recall blocks and Legos were accompanied by and gave way to Hot Wheels, model trains, slot cars, plastic models, rockets and early radio-controlled vehicles.

In one serious conversation in third or fourth grade, I was solemnly informed about the coolest place on earth, Polk's Model Craft Hobbies in New York City, and, when I finally got to go there, I found the buildup fell far short of the reality. Unlike most small, cramped hobby shops, Polk's filled an entire old office building on lower 5th Avenue. Each of its five or six floors was two or three times the size of an average shop, and each was devoted exclusively to a different model category—trains, airplanes, ships, cars, rockets. It was an eye-opener to be sure. It relocated to New Jersey in 1980 and closed in 2013. Its G-scale train division maintains an online presence at Polks Generationext.

Personally, I was just as amazed on another excursion to nearby and equally legendary Tannen's Magic on 34th Street. All of the sales guys appeared to be trained magicians who spent much of their time levitating silver spheres and making canes appear from nowhere.

Likewise, having experienced the often flimsy construction and connection problems of at-home slot-car sets, I was similarly impressed by the huge, solid raceways and larger, more powerful cars at the rare and terrific commercial tracks. I don't recall more than just looking on at Buzz-A-Rama on Church Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, but it made enough of an impact that I thought much more highly of Des Plaines, Illinois, when I began covering it for the local weekly newspaper in 1985 and encountered its Dads Slot Cars on Lee Street. Both are still up and running today. I also thought better of another town I covered, Morton Grove, Illinois, when I learned that most of the Revell models I'd built years before came from its headquarters there. It's since moved to nearby Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

Though many of these magical places are long ago and far away, they remain vivid in my memory. Fortunately, though we may not have them physically nearby anymore; most retain websites and online presences, through which many of their products can still be obtained and played with by generations young and old.

Of course, the point of all this is that Legos and other well-known activities are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sparking kids' interests and enthusiasm, and many of them are closer than you might think or are at least within reach. So do a little extra investigating this holiday season. You might start out giving the children in your life toys and hopefully playing with them or taking them on an eye-popping daytrip and end up providing something much more valuable—the capability to become innovative engineers or other imaginative, well-adjusted professionals.