Why the Navy is banking on Legos to connect with children

By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: January 31, 2019

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Any student knows that history, math and science can sometimes be boring.

But the Navy may have found the secret formula to getting children excited about each topic without them even knowing it.

The key? Playing with Legos.

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum started a small shipbuilding event with Legos at Nauticus in 2012 to get children to recreate a few historic naval vessels and get them interested in science, technology, engineering and math.

It worked. A few hundred people showed up that first year to get hands-on experience designing and building ships.

Last year, about 3,000 people attended the shipbuilding competition — which has moved to the Half Moone Cruise Center to accommodate the larger crowds the naval museum could not. This year's event will be held at the cruise center on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

"The program was designed originally kind of as a way to introduce STEM into history," said Elijah Palmer, the naval museum's deputy director of education. "It's kind of sometimes an uphill battle trying to mix those two worlds. ... So this was kind of a creative way to try to integrate some of that together."

When not hosting competitions and free play events, museum staff will go into area schools and use Legos as a tool to explain grid systems, fractions and shipbuilding in general.

There are now instructions for how to build 16 Navy ships dating from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and up to the modern era with the Norfolk-based nuclear aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. Kiddie pools with thousands of plastic bricks are also filled as part of a free play area where children and adults can come up with whatever creations they want. Last year, a quiet space was set aside for children with autism that organizers will return once again this year.

The museum largely depends on an army of volunteers to pull off the event, some of whom are sailors and others who are involved in the Hampton Roads Lego building community. Museum officials believe this is the largest Lego-building event the Navy hosts anywhere in the world.

"The vision of our command is to make the Navy and its history relevant to the American people and its leaders. What better way to make history and heritage available to the future leaders of our nation than to bring them to a magnificent Lego event?," said Max Lonzanida, a museum spokesman. "It's not necessarily a recruiting tool, but it's more of us getting out there in the general American public to tell you, 'This is what we have available. This is what the Navy does.' And these are some cool Legos that you guys can play with."

Visit www.facebook.com/HRNavalMuseum for more information.

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