Lego exhibit helps kids aim for the sky

The Discovery Centre’s latest feature hopes to inspire the next generation of architects and engineers

By Chris Muise

The newest feature at The Discovery Centre hopes to inspire the next generation of engineers and architects with the help of one of the world’s most beloved toy brands, Lego.

Towers of Tomorrow with Lego Bricks, a traveling exhibit hailing from Melbourne, Australia making its first Canadian stop in Halifax, features 20, 14-foot-tall, to-scale replicas of some of the tallest buildings and architectural marvels from around the world, including the CN Tower, the Empire State Building, and the Burj Khalifa, just to name a few.

All 20 towers were made exclusively with Lego, with a grand total of two tonnes worth of bricks and 2,400 man-hours. The man who expended each one of those man hours, Lego certified professional Ryan McNaught, was on-sight during the exhibit’s exclusive opening event to show a group of first- and second-grade kids from Saint Mary’s Elementary what he’s built.

“We’re going to get the school group in here, and we’re going to put them through their paces and test their Lego skills. See if Halifax Lego kids are up to the challenge,” says McNaught, who is one of only 14 Lego Certified professionals from around the world.

You see, the replica towers aren’t the only Lego bricks in the exhibit. Found beneath their displays are areas filled with loose Lego bricks, to the tune of 200,000 individual pieces. McNaught divided the kids into three teams and tasked each to first build the tallest free-standing tower they could, and then the longest bridge without any underlying supports.

McNaught hints the replica skyscrapers are to get kids and their parents in the door, but it’s these loose bricks that are the real stars of the exhibit.

“It’s a great way to teach kids about architecture, and the world we live in,” McNaught says. “We call it ‘education by stealth,’ in that kids don’t know they’re learning. They’re going to have a great time playing with Lego bricks, but really what they’re doing is they’re learning skills around engineering, around how difficult it is to make towers.”

“I’m trying to build a bridge,” says seven-year-old Kierra Depenha. “It’s not really turning out how I want it to turn out.”

“We can build whatever we want,” adds Adrian Pecurica, who is adamant he is six-and-three-quarters-years-old. “Right now, I’m building an iron fort. This red piece is blood.”

It’s an ingenious way to get kids thinking about the real-world applications of such things as structural integrity, physics, and even gravity. Lego, one of the most enduring toy brands on earth, has been a staple of the playroom since 1949, and there’s nary a child alive today who hasn’t encountered a piece or two. No child would suspect they’re actually learning when given the chance to play with some.

Photo by Chris Muise

And yet, we probably owe the existence of some of the real-world equivalents of the towers on display in the exhibit to Lego, according to McNaught.

“Most architects, engineers that I talk to, both [men] and [women], played with Lego as a kid and it was one of the key things that got them interested in what they do,” McNaught says.
That connection between Lego and future city-makers of tomorrow isn’t lost on the people at the Discovery Centre, who booked this exhibit over a year in advance.

“Our slogan for this campaign is ‘start small, dream tall,’ and that’s exactly what these kids are doing here today with their towers,” says Jennifer Punch, director of marketing and sales at The Discovery Centre. “When you think about careers down the road, how many potential architects, designers, construction crew engineers do you think we have in this room right now… hopefully, it’s inspiring them to use their imagination and aspire to be those future engineers and architects.”

It may seem like a long shot, exposing kids to Lego and hoping they grow up to build the world’s next largest skyscraper. But childhood exposure to potential career paths isn’t for nothing, according to Saint Mary’s Elementary teacher Brigitte Theriault.

“That’s how children learn, they learn exploring with hands-on materials,” she says. “I think it’s important to expose them to different career paths, but I think at this age, it’s just about having fun and exploring.”

“They probably learn more, applying it practically,” says Eric Machum, a parent chaperone who came with his son Max’s class to the opening event.

Hands-on learning isn’t anything new to The Discovery Centre, which recently relocated to a top-of-the-line facility located next door to NS Power’s downtown headquarters. In fact, it’s been their bread and butter for going on three decades.

“Everything we do here at The Discovery Centre is about fun, but it’s also got an educational element,” Punch says. “Towers of Tomorrow with Lego Bricks is all about experiential learning… similar to other areas of The Discovery Centre.”

Depenha, who is eager to tell anyone who’ll listen she’s been to the real Burj Khalifa when her family lived in Dubai (although she was only a baby then and doesn’t remember it personally), has other career paths in mind, like being a veterinarian or a dancer. But she thinks it would be great if some of her other classmates are inspired to follow a career in architecture because of their time at the Towers of Tomorrow exhibit.

“They’re teaching us how to build… so people could build houses for people on the street,” she says.

Pecurica, on the other hand, has definitely been inspired to change his career trajectory because of the Lego exhibit and meeting McNaught.

“I learned that lots of Lego structures can be taller than I think, like that big blue one is almost to the ceiling,” he says, pointing to the Burj Khalifa. “I decided to be a famous Lego artist when I grew up.”

“I’m sure they’ll all go home with very exciting stories today,” Theriault says, as the kids are led out on their way back to their regular classes. “They’ll remember this day for a long time.”

The Towers of Tomorrow with Lego Bricks feature exhibit is open to patrons of the Discovery Centre as part of regular admission until Jan. 4, 2019, when the toy towers will be packed up and ferried to their next destination. Until then, Punch welcomes folks of all ages to come and enjoy the exhibit, because really, who among us doesn’t love Lego?

“I feel like this exhibit is really for everybody,” Punch says.

Sustainable Lego bricks

In the world of toys, Lego towers above the rest, and not just because you can stack their bricks to the ceiling. With oil growing scarcer, and plastic getting costlier, Lego maintains a rigid standard of quality when it comes to the stuff their bricks are made of, while other toys are finding ways to reduce costs by reducing plastic.

This is in part because the company wants to ensure the bucket of bricks you grew up with as a child will fit together flawlessly with bricks you buy your own kids today.

“The thing that I like about Lego is that I’m still using the same bricks I had when I was a child,” says Ryan McNaught, a Lego certified professional.

In that sense, Lego is already practicing sustainability to a certain degree.

“There’s that reusability element to it,” McNaught says.

But the Danish company wants to do better still. That’s why Lego expects to produce its first ecologically-friendly bricks this year.

Production has already begun on a range of bricks made from plant-based materials sourced from sugarcane, according to the company’s website. At the moment, they’re only being used for Lego‘s more “botanical” pieces, like trees and bushes, but the hope is to transition to a fully-sustainable product catalogue by 2030.

As an end user, McNaught is more than happy to switch over to eco-friendly bricks once they arrive.

“If they’re fundamentally the same, of course you’d go for the environmentally-friendly solution,” he says. “Lego‘s quality and standards, which haven’t changed over the years, [means] they won’t bring anything into the market that doesn’t meet that [standard].”

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