Teaching science and math through Legos at Independence Seaport Museum

    In September my two young reporters and I had the distinct privilege to interview a Lego Master Builder. Ever since my eight year old saw the Lego Movie, the concept of a Master Builder has been fascinating to him. So to meet one in person, well, it was a dream come true.

    Our opportunity arose when the Independence Seaport Museum hosted an exhibition of Wilbert McKinley’s Teach Fleet. After spending years as a Naval ship designer, McKinley found himself in charge of a group of children in an after school program in Baltimore.

    With a non-existent budget and 30 middle school kids, McKinley wanted to find a way to connect with the kids. Since the children were drawn to legos, he decided to create lego ships as teaching vessels.

    Each ship McKInley creates is his own creation. McKinley wanted the ships to broaden children’s STEM knowledge, so he developed a clever way to connect the two. Each ship he designed is named after a leader in science, technology, engineering or math, but one who is also a member an underrepresented group in STEM fields.

    What follows are our young reporters’ thoughts on their interviews with WIlbert McKinley. Reporter Charlie focused on the art of lego building, and Reporter Maya focused on the connection to STEM.

    From Charlie, age 8:

    I found it so interesting that he never liked Legos or played with them before he made all of those six-feet long ships. He used to watch ships go by at the waterfront as a kid, and then he became a naval ship designer.

    The way he started building was first he bought a kit and he followed the instructions. But then he shared it with the after school kids and decided to add onto it. That gave him enough information to start building ships without instructions or images. He doesn’t use pictures, directions or a kit to build his amazing ships. He uses old recycled Lego bricks and his own mind to create them.

    It’s also interesting that he doesn’t love Legos himself. He likes them about 50 on a scale of 1 to 100, but he knows kids like them, so he builds them for the kids. It takes him about a week to build an average ship between 3 to 4 feet long. His longest ship is 6 feet long and took about two weeks to make.

    Mr. McKinley has not seen “The Lego Movie.” I told him he should!

    From Maya, age 11:

    I thought it was interesting that he named all of his ships after women or people of color; when I asked him why, he said it was because of his after school program when he got a grant. The grant program guidelines were to encourage female and minority students to pursue STEM careers.

    It was cool that the biographies were related to the function of the ships. For example, he had a hospital ship named after Dr. Ben Carson and he has another hospital ship that’s named for Dr. Charles Drew. Dr. Charles Drew helped establish the first Red Cross blood bank.

    When I asked him what kind of science the people he named the ships after studied, he said “just about every science there is.” He has ships named after chemists, biologists, marine biologists and ocean vessel marine biologists.

    He focused on the students who were less interested in math and science because there are not enough women and diverse mathematicians and scientists in the country.

    As advice for girls who want to become engineers and mathematicians, he said, “You can’t be intimidated by the boys’ club.”

    McKinley also said he’s found parents who think that STEM is not for girls, but he said that girls are just as interested as boys. They just get discouraged, so they need to hang in there and stick to it!

    McKinley has over 300 ships, ranging in length from 1 to 6 feet long. Each ship has a corresponding write-up, highlighting the STEM person for whom it’s named. If you have the opportunity to view his collection, jump on it!

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