Lego to bring creativity to new nanotechnology class

(PhotoCourtesy of Camilla Jensen) (Photo Courtesy of Camilla Jensen)

Colorful Lego pieces will help students think outside the box while trying to bridge an idea with its tangible representation at a new nanotechnology class planned for fall 2014.

ASU plans to launch a new nanotechnology class that will make it the first university in the country to start using Lego Serious Play for educational purposes. At the class, each student will get to express themselves through an LSP, which contains well-known pieces along with coins, trees and mini-figures to help build metaphors representing technology-related ideas.

Engineering students who participated in two pilot workshops Feb. 24 and April 15 were expected to turn away from usual scientific thinking and exercise their creativity. In the fall, the course will be open to all majors.

Graduate research assistant Camilla Nørgaard Jensen, the creator of the project and a certified LSP facilitator, has come a long way from hatching the idea to receiving $200,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation. The class aims to promote a discussion about the impacts of nanotechnology through metaphors, analogies and symbolic interpretations, she said.

The Lego models will serve as physical representations of the students’ thoughts and help them express their ideas and concerns.

“Many engineering courses have an emphasis on left-brain activities such as calculations, standards,” she said. “In this course students will be using both sides of the brain and even their hands to engage in creative thinking and communication. Students will be challenged to venture outside of their comfort zone and expand their focus.”

Structural engineering senior Holly Boelhauf said she was able to express herself through the work, unlike in some other, more structured classes.

“It was something out of the ordinary round that we do as engineers,” she said. “In the engineering field, we don’t get to use our creativity; it’s black and white. It was nice being able to have just an open slate.”

During the workshops students were given several modeling tasks, which were restricted by the time limits. As a warm-up exercise, students were asked to build a fantasy creature and then, with the help of imagination and creativity, give the creature a metaphoric representation of a good collaborator.

Other tasks, including asking students to build a tower with as many pieces as possible or trying to imagine the future influenced by nanotechnology, resulted in robust embodiments of the ideas, reflecting students’ personalities.

“It was really cool to see the vast differences between how people think, because whatever they think, they represent in their Lego structure,” Boelhauf said.

Along with creativity, another important part of the project was the ability to plunge into hands-on experience, which was one of the most exciting and challenging parts of the workshop, Boelhauf said.

“I was excited to get my hands on,” Boelhauf said. “I actually had so many ideas running through my head, and every single time I tried creating what I wanted to, I couldn’t. I couldn’t get the pieces together.”

Jensen said in the digital age students use their hands "like an input to a computer," which leaves much untapped potential, as a lot of creative processing power happens through hands.

“For a lot of fields we don’t really use hands for anything but for a keyboard and a mouse,” she said. “There’s a highway of nerves going from our brain to the hands,. It makes sense to explore what kind of wisdom we have in them.”

For Matt Magallanes, a civil engineering senior, the class revived a lot of childhood memories. That’s why he really wanted to build a car, he said.While constructing a hybrid car and a boat with a shield in front and a propeller in the back, Magallanes thought of the ideas his constructions would represent.

“What I was expressing was versatility, and the shield was for safety, because we want to be safe,” he said. “And then the gold on the back represented the profitability.”

Aimed at facilitating discussions about complex issues that do not have a single resolution, LSP doesn’t deal with the categories of "right" or "wrong." An important part of the process is dedicated to clarifying the metaphors expressed in the model and comparing it with others.

“What was surprising was the results,” Magallanes said. “They represented what we were thinking somehow. We could see different personalities, look at everybody else’s creations, and see how they differ.”

Such wide array of the outcomes originates from the fact that students work individually and get to access some great inside resources that they may not be aware of, Jensen said.

“People get to have this building meaning with themselves,” Jensen said. “They can go inwards and feel and sense and consult with themselves to figure out what they really feel about this topic.”

Thomas Seager, an associate professor of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and a mentor for Jensen’s project, said LSP is also aimed at developing oral communication skills, as students learn to tell stories to describe their mental models of the topic.

“Lego Serious Play doesn’t acquire meaning until you explain what you built to other people, and sometimes in the middle of the explanations, you discover what it means,” he said.

Comparing the project with science fiction, Seager said it also allows participants to explore moral questions about technology in imagination before arriving in the future and reconsider some values while working on a project.

“This idea of play accessing the imagination (and) accessing creativity is pretty powerful,” he said. “Both participants should walk away thinking about their own expertise differently, because they participated in this imaginative exercise.”

Building bridges between people from different disciplines, the project solves the problem of interdisciplinary communication with the help of physical models, Seager said.

“People don’t understand what the words mean outside of the context of their own discipline,” he said. “And so if they’re going to work together and exchange knowledge, they need to have either a very intensive experience in the language of other disciplines or they need to have other ways to communicate. And I think this project created this possibility that they could communicate in other ways.”

Despite all the anticipated skepticism from material scientists and material engineers, the reaction to the project exceeded all expectations, Seager said. A lot of professionals were willing to give a hand to the project by teaching about nanotechnology and bringing specific applications to the workshops. The number of volunteers for the pilot workshops far exceeded the number of participants the research team could host in two sessions.

“We’ve been getting cooperation and enthusiasm at every turn, when we thought we might get a little skepticism and a little reticence about participating,” he said.

The course will kick off in fall 2014 and will consist of four three-hour workshops. In the coming years it will focus on nanotechnology, but in future, the project might expand to other disciplines, Jensen said.

“I hope to apply Lego Serious Play and other tools for design thinking to a multitude of complex problems ranging from gender equality, sustainability and chronic pain management to social entrepreneurship in third world countries and bereavement therapy,” she said.

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @KseniaMaryasova

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