Toy Story: How UVA Students Learn Engineering Values Through Lego Bricks

January 24, 2022 By Andrew Ramspacher, Andrew Ramspacher,

Ben Laugelli has three college degrees, including a doctorate from the University of Virginia in religious studies. He’s been the winner of a dissertation-writing grant and has had work presented at a variety of national symposiums.

Yes, that Ben Laugelli, the one standing in front of a Thornton Hall classroom with a Minions Lego toy in his hands.

The final day of a January term course called “The Lego Course: Engineering Design and Values” began with some show-and-tell from the instructor. Laugelli, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, lined a table adjacent to his desk with adult creations from a childhood pastime.

The back row hosted the Razor Crest ship from the “Stars Wars”-based television series “The Mandalorian” and a “Spiderman”-themed city set featuring “The Daily Bugle” building.  The front row featured the goggle-wearing Minions from “Despicable Me” and a red Ferrari inspired by the 1980s-era hit TV show, “Magnum, P.I.”

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UVA assistant professor Ben Laugelli examining a project from a student group
UVA assistant professor Ben Laugelli, center, helps students with a project as part of “The Lego Course.”

A lifelong hobby for Laugelli is now a teaching tool. “The Lego Course” has been offered three times under his leadership at UVA, including earlier this month in January term. It delivers both a seminar and studio experience, allowing students to learn about the Lego Group’s history, culture and values in the morning and then allowing them to play in the afternoon.

A kid’s toy with lessons to last a career.

“There are people who are skeptical about the course,” Laugelli said. “They ask, ‘Why Lego?’ I tell them, ‘Lego is a company that engages in engineering design that touches every single one of our majors.’”

Prospective engineers of all kinds – mechanical, biomedical, chemical, aerospace, computer science, etc. – took Laugelli’s course this year. While being a Lego fan wasn’t a prerequisite, it was a trait many of the students had in common. 

“The opportunity to take a course playing with Legos for college credit was very much attractive,” said Paul Karhnak, a first-year student from Hampton whose grandparents have gifted him a new Lego set every year since he was 5. “But I also looked at it and I said, ‘This will be a great way to not only learn engineering ethics and design considerations and values, but to have fun while doing it.’”

For the first of two assigned projects, students purchased a Lego “Creator 3 in 1” set and were asked to imagine the company’s design team was soliciting concept designs for a fourth model. They had to remain within the set’s target age range and only use the pieces in the original set, using no less than the number of pieces used in the smallest of the three original models.

Requiring tight constraints simulated a true work environment, Laugelli said.

“Rarely do engineers get a blue-sky project where they can design whatever they want with no budget, no material constraints and no set due date,” he said. “They need things done at a certain time while meeting a client’s specifications.

“So it gives them experience working under those conditions.”

Khushi Chawla, a second-year computer science major from Ashburn, selecting from the “Mighty Dinosaurs” set of Tyrannosaurus rex, pterodactyl and triceratops models, created a mosasaurus, the large underwater carnivore from “Jurassic World.”

This not only met the building demands, it also connected to many of Lego’s six brand values – imagination, creativity, fun, learning, caring and quality.

Khushi Chawla showing a lego creation
Khushi Chawla, a second-year computer science major from Ashburn, displays her dinosaur Lego creation.

“I chose the mosasaurus because while, yeah, I had seen it in ‘Jurassic Park,’ I never learned about it in school growing up,” Chawla said. “So I thought it was a little bit more of a unique dinosaur in comparison to the other three original models. So it would allow the customer, the children who are playing with it, to learn a little bit more about less commonly known dinosaurs.

“And I also think that because it’s an underwater dinosaur, it has different types of limbs – fins instead of wings or legs like the other ones – and it kind of opens the door with a child’s imagination. They can imagine different types of dinosaurs that can be made, not just land and air ones. It’s opening the possibilities for what can be created with this set.”

Karhnak, selecting from the “Deep Sea Creatures” set of a shark, crab and squid models, created a leatherback sea turtle.

“If it was developed into the full model,” Karhnak said, “it would bring awareness to the sea turtle, which is endangered.”

Students looking at Lego software program with instructor pointing at a piece of the project
Using Lego software, a student works on a digital creation of a World Heritage Site.

The second project, which was punctuated by group presentations on the course’s final day, again tapped into Lego’s values. The company, in recent years, has pursued a number of ambitious sustainability initiatives as an expression of corporate social responsibility. Laugelli asked students to design a product line that features models of various World Heritage Sites. The goal here, read the syllabus, was to “foster appreciation and support for sites of profound natural and cultural value that are worth preserving for future generations.”

Ahava Freeman, a second-year biomedical engineering major from McLean, was part of a group that created a product line for Rio de Janeiro, a potentially culturally significant set.

“The Lego architecture sets that already exist pretty much don’t have representation of any city or landmark in the Southern Hemisphere, or of Latin American ones in general,” Freeman said. “So we thought that Rio was a really good city to choose.”

As a cost-saving measure, this project was done digitally and without the plastic tiny bricks. This still offered an unintended benefit, Laugelli said.

Student group presenting their digital Lego creation
Students present their digital Lego creation of a World Heritage Site on the course’s final day.

“It gives students training in learning software,” he said. “When they get on the job, they’re just going to be expected to hit the ground running. For a lot of projects, the supervisor is going to say, ‘I need this presentation at the end of the week to this company, and I need a digital render of this design. Go do it!’ And then it’s up to the engineer to draw on their experience.

“No one had interacted with this Lego software platform from day one of the course. So they had to learn it in the span of the two weeks to be able to deliver what I’m asking them to do at the end of the course.”

Part of Lego’s documented mission is to “develop and inspire the builders of tomorrow.” These words were echoed throughout Laugelli’s course.

“As engineers, you are all the builders of tomorrow. I hope this course has given you some resources and experiences for building us a great future,” he told the class in his closing remarks.

Samuel Ahn, a second-year computer science major from Burke, nodded in approval.

“This was a really fun experience, just reliving what I did as a kid,” Ahn said. “But it was so much more. I learned so much about Lego I never thought about before. It taught me how to work under constraints, compromise and be creative.”

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Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications