I, Robot: Master Lego Builders, All-Girl Robotics Teams and Architects of the Future

Filed in: After School, STEM

Filed by Christine Cupaiuolo


4.9.12 | Those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s may well have turned to science fiction to better understand the development and potential of robots. My earliest introduction came via “Star Wars,” after which I went on a reading kick, starting with Isaac Asimov’s classic “I, Robot” stories.

MSI National Robotics Week

Flash forward to 2012, and the learning experience is much more accessible and hands-on. Robotics classes and after-school groups dedicated to building robots can be found across the country. Instead of getting their fix vicariously through sci-fi, these kids are building their own future, literally.

This week (April 7-15) marks the third annual National Robotics Week, a combined celebration and education event that aims to inspire students to pursue careers in robotics and other related science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The website features a map showing events taking place in every state, along with recommended activities and online resources. Visit @Roboweek and Facebook.com/roboweek for more updates.

Here in Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry is hosting a Robot Block Party, featuring several different kinds of robots from the United States and Japan, along with workshops and hands-on activities. Does it get any better than that? 

Introducing the Youngest Lego Master Model Builder
For Andrew Johnson, it might. The 23-year-old DePaul University senior recently landed his dream job: Lego Master Model Builder.

There’s a rich history of Lego’s and robots, as early Lego’s were one of the more mainstream and relatively inexpensive ways for kids to build their own worlds and characters (albeit with limited movement). Johnson played with Lego’s when he was young, but he didn’t pick them up again until he was a summer camp counselor at Green Apple Campus, which offers hands-on science and technology programs, including Lego workshops.

Based on the strength of his application submission—a stop-animation video featuring a Lego catapult firing a boulder at a dragon (view below)—Johnson was invited to battle his fellow job applicants in a three-round build-off, as parents and kids watched, reports NPR’s Susie An.

“I think the history and also the cinema aspects kind of broadened my perspectives,” said Johnson, who is graduating this spring with a degree in history and a minor in digital cinema. “And it’s really good to have more than one viewpoint when working with Lego.”


Lego’s for Everyone
Only four people in the United States carry the official designation of Lego Master Model Builder, an honorary title bestowed on official Lego employees who are responsible for building humongous sculptures or creating the model kits (which Johnson will be doing). For those who want to take their Lego-building skills to a new level, a six-part Master Builder Academy course shows you the way.

Corrine Iozzio, a writer for Popular Science, is chronicling her journey from neophyte to Master Builder. In part one of the series, she describes the challenges she encountered completing the first two assigned Lego kits—from realizing the Master Builder Academy website isn’t kidding when it advises organizing the bricks before building, to developing a “miniature mindset,” which “trains you to look at a round LEGO dot and see a wheel, the top of a stool, or a traffic sign.”

As she started on the third kit, Robot Designer, Iozzio remarked on a noticeable difference in her approach.

The name of the game this time is balance—both artistic and physical; too much detail or flourish up top, and the whole thing comes crumbing down. Still at this point, I’ve learned to quell the frustration and uncertainty I felt a month ago, crack my knuckles, lean forward into what I call my “LEGO hunch,” and say to myself “I got this…”

Earlier this year, I noted the problems with Lego’s roll-out of a new Friends line for girls that comes packaged in pink stereotypes (favorite activities: party planning and visiting the beauty shop). A Change.org petition urging Lego to create and advertise more gender-neutral building kits has so far garnered more than 55,000 signatures.

If you need any more convincing why buying gendered Lego’s is a bad idea, Kimberly Palmer, senior editor for U.S. News & World Report, gives five good reasons, starting with:

1. Girls are already surrounded by gender stereotypes wherever they turn. At a “pirates and princess themed” party I recently attended with my two-year-old daughter, the boys were instructed to pick out toy telescopes to play with while the girls were given toy wands. What message does that send—that boys explore while girls sit back and wait for magic to happen? The toy industry is so heavy with gender stereotypes that there’s little room for personal preferences. Parents can at least show their daughters that playing with girl-specific toys isn’t a requirement.

Read the rest here. Palmer also references a New York Times op-ed by Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” who notes why it’s important to break the toy gender binary: “[T]he environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine.”

We, Robotics Team
For more authentic inspiration, introduce young girls to one of the rising all-girl robotics teams, such as the Fe Maidens at Bronx High School of Science, the Space Cookies, featuring girls from the Bay Area sponsored by a partnership between NASA Ames Research Center and the Girl Scouts of Northern California, or the RoboDoves, representing Western High School in Baltimore.

The RoboDoves are headed to the VEX Robotics High School World Championship in Anaheim, Calif., later this month. Read more about their most recent creation, a 4-foot-tall basketball-playing bot.

Or learn more about the robots built by Team Antipodes. Representing Pacifica, Calif., the team is competing at this month’s FIRST Robotics Competition Championship in St. Louis. My colleague Sarah had the good fortune to meet The Antipodes, and their robot, Rubi, at last year’s East Bay Mini Maker Faire.

Building the future? Check. And they’re claiming their place in it.


gender, lego, robotics



Picture of Amy Jussel
Amy Jussel


I’ll add a sixth reason…neuroscience and brain plasticity, as I wrote in this piece, “Lego, please build on possibility, brain plasticity” http://www.shapingyouth.org/?p=17789

Our partners at Spark Summit will be meeting in less than two weeks w/Lego honchos to uncork an important dialog about the 55,000+ vehement signatures of scientists, parents, educators, and girls themselves who prefer open-ended spheres to tightly boxed-in stereotypes.

Let’s hope the corporate powers-that-be are listening very closely, as it would be criminal to lose half the population veering away from STEM as femme in futurescapes…it’s not just limiting, it’s detrimental for the economic sustainability and innovation of our entire nation. We need all the brains we can get in forward-thinking solutions-building, investing in cross-training brains to ‘think differently’...

Look no further than Sheryl Sandberg’s talk at Davos Economic Forum to see why all this matters. Short term. Long term. Kids are architects for the future indeed. Let’s build a smart, thoughtful future, not a vapid ‘assembly’ style version.


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