The world of Lego is about much more than a small pile of bricks and an instruction manual.
People of all ages are concocting ambitious, original projects with the little plastic bricks. They recreate historic monuments, capture iconic moments of American history, imagine their own epic scenes and build shrines to childhood pop icons. And they make things that solve problems.
Take the Lightning Ladies, for example.
Six grade-school girls built a robot using Lego Mindstorms pieces. The bot has a detachable arm, bumper wheels on the sides and a huge movable rake on top, all powered by a central Bluetooth remote that they program with a laptop. They call the robot “Dashinator.”
Dashinator’s job is to rove around a board on its own, knocking dump trucks down tracks, activating levers, retrieving materials and, hopefully, retrieving a state championship in the process.
The Lightning Ladies of Bellevue is one of 48 teams competing for a state championship in the Nebraska FIRST Lego League today at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum. Organized by Nebraska 4-H, the league challenges teams to build robots using Lego pieces as a way to get more students interested in STEM career fields.
The Lightning Ladies is one of the few all-girls teams.
“When we went to competitions, we realized most of it is boys,” said coach Heather Barnes, a technical trainer and former systems engineer. “So we really wanted to have an all-girls team. It’s kind of our contribution to closing that gender gap.”
McKenzie Brannon, Barnes’ 10-year-old daughter, was on an otherwise all-boys team last year. Now, she’s on an all-girls squad that includes her sister Genevieve Barnes, 8; and friends Quinn Haselden, 9; Madison Riggs, 10; Pressly Schoenherr, 10; and Tauren Woodward, 10.
To build the bot, the girls found a basic design online and heavily modified the robot to fit the challenges. Most of the ideas came from their 8-, 9- and 10-year-old noggins.
They divided into pairs, each team tackling a task, then put their heads together to smooth out the bumps and to program it into a laptop and send it to the Bluetooth device. Today, they’ll see how Dashinator stacks up.
“It doesn’t always do what you want it to do,” Madison said. “Sometimes it will miss something when you want it to get it. It’s very frustrating. Sometimes we have to calm ourselves down.”
At their final practice Sunday, the robot was consistently completing about 80 percent of its tasks.
PITCHING A PRODUCT
One year ago, an accountant in Florida made a pitch: Turn the historic golden spike ceremony into a Lego set.
Jack Little III, 33, used a free computer program to recreate, using 2,019 Legos, a photograph from the 1869 ceremony. Brick by brick, he built the Omaha-based Union Pacific Railroad train, No. 119, and the Central Pacific Railroad train, Jupiter, meeting and connecting America’s transcontinental railroad.
Little posted his plan for the retail Lego set on the website Lego Ideas. There, Lego enthusiasts can upload photos and information about sets they’ve designed, and they can start campaigning for Lego to turn them into real-life products.
If a set collects 10,000 supporters in a reasonable amount of time, it will be reviewed by Lego. Every year, a few are sent to production.
“You’re not just voting for a guy’s Lego project,” Little said. “You’re also voting to promote American history. ... Because Lego is an international brand, kids all over the world are going to be playing with this.”
Little’s set is one-fifth of the way to its goal and needs to reach at least 5,000 votes by August 2016 to earn an extension. His project is among the top 10 most-commented active projects on the site.
Learn more about Little’s project and vote at ideas.lego.com/projects/95531.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
Sometimes, it doesn’t take just bricks to build something worthwhile with Lego. It takes people.
Nathan Flood and Chris Malloy, both from Lincoln, co-founded LOLUG — the Lincoln and Omaha LEGO User Group. The group is made up of adult fans of Lego in both cities, and it’s growing fast.
Now, the group has a few dozen members. They meet once a month, switching between the two cities.
Between meetings, members compete in build challenges. When they reconvene, they vote on the best one.
They also feed one another’s brick collections. Each meeting, they hold a draft. Everyone buys the same new Lego set, the pieces are divided into piles of similar pieces, numbers are drawn and members take turns selecting desired piles of bricks to take home.
“We get parts by doing drafts,” Flood said. “Each person has their own way of building or what their favorite part is.”
Flood, 46, has built a pair of massive replica U-boats — relying on his brother’s construction books — and a scaled-down model of the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln.
He’s currently building a coaling bunker — based off an old photograph — for the group’s functioning train layout, and he’s considering recreating more buildings from Lincoln, like the Trade A Tape Comic Center, 145 S. Ninth St.
A few years ago, when his daughter Maci was 10 — she’s almost 14 now — Flood helped his daughter build a Madison Square Garden stage, complete with functional lights and a roaring crowd. The performer: Justin Bieber.
“Everybody loved it,” Flood said. They took the monthlong build to Chicago to display among other Lego projects before disassembling the set for parts, something Flood says he rarely does.
Other members of LOLUG are biting off even bigger projects.
Justin Chrisp is building a replica of the Washington Mall, a project three years in the making, currently in its third rebuild. When finished, it’ll be about 3 feet wide and 12 feet long, with the Washington Monument reaching about 4 feet high.
He hopes to have all three parts — the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool — done in time for LOLUG’s May show at Lauritzen Gardens. But it isn’t cheap. Chrisp estimates the final cost around $900, with 15,000 pieces total.
Another member, Bryan Guilliam, is building a castle inspired by “The Lord of the Rings.” When it’s complete, he plans to make a stop-motion movie using the castle as a set.
Other group members are building urban buildings and rural battle scenes. One built a replica of the State Capitol.
Some use blueprints, photographs or other models and some freewheel it. The only limit is your imagination. And, of course, your inventory of bricks.
NEBRASKA ROBOTICS EXPO
What: 800 students showcase robots and compete in various categories
When: Today, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Where: Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum, 28210 W. Park Highway, Ashland
Tickets: Free with regular admission
Lego connection: Nebraska FIRST Lego League State Championship Tournament, plus a presentation by the Lincoln and Omaha LEGO Users Group
More info: usfirst.org
LEGO BRICK ARTISTS EXPO
What: Exposition of Lego creations by local enthusiasts
When: May 1, noon to 5 p.m.
Where: Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St.
Who: Lincoln and Omaha LEGO Users Group
Tickets: Free with regular admission
More info: lauritzengardens.org