Mechanical engineering is a vast field that integrates principles from physics, mathematics, and materials science to design, analyze, and construct mechanical systems. While textbooks and lectures provide a solid theoretical foundation, practical understanding is invaluable. Enter LEGO® bricks: versatile, accessible, and a surprisingly effective tool for illustrating engineering concepts, especially in the realm of bridge building. Here, we’ll explore how college students can utilize LEGO® to grasp key mechanical engineering principles and even conduct an instructive experiment.
Why LEGO® Bricks?
LEGO® bricks are more than just child’s play. Their standardized design, modularity, and wide variety of components make them ideal for modeling structural systems. From their simple snap-together mechanism to their ability to distribute weight, LEGO® bricks can mimic many principles inherent in real-world engineering challenges.
Sets to Start With For College Projects
LEGO® Technic: Specifically designed for more advanced builders, LEGO® Technic sets often incorporate real-life mechanical elements like gears, beams, pulleys, and even hydraulic systems. These can serve as foundational kits for building more complex structures.
LEGO® Architecture: While this line primarily focuses on landmark buildings, its emphasis on structural integrity and aesthetic detail provides valuable lessons in balancing design and function.
LEGO® Creator Expert: These sets, especially the ones focused on buildings and bridges, offer multifaceted designs that can be dissected and studied from an engineering standpoint.
Building Bridges with LEGO®
Before diving into bridge building, it’s essential to understand some fundamental mechanical engineering principles:
Tension and Compression: These are the primary forces acting on any bridge. LEGO® bricks, especially Technic beams, can visibly display these forces in action.
Load Distribution: The way a bridge distributes weight is crucial to its stability. By building various bridge designs, students can experimentally observe differences in load distribution.
Torsion and Shear: These forces are secondary but still important, especially in bridges with moving parts or those exposed to external forces like wind.
Building Techniques For LEGO® Bridges
As students delve into bridge building with LEGO®, they should be encouraged to try different techniques. A few options include:
Beam Bridges: The simplest form, constructed using beams lying across supports.
Arch Bridges: These use arches, typically built with curved or hinged bricks, to distribute weight.
Suspension Bridges: A more advanced design, these can be constructed using Technic elements like cables (strings) and towers.
Cantilever Bridges: These require an understanding of counterbalances and can be built using extended arms anchored by a main support.
Experiment: Load Testing with LEGO® Bridges
Objective: Determine the maximum load a specific LEGO® bridge design can handle and identify the structural weak points.
- LEGO® bricks (preferably from one of the recommended sets)
- Small weights or objects with known masses
- A stable platform to anchor the bridge
Bridge Construction: Have students design and construct a bridge of a specific span (e.g., 50cm) using only LEGO® bricks.
Predictions: Before testing, ask students to predict where they believe weak points exist in their bridge and how much weight their bridge can handle.
Load Application: Place weights incrementally on the bridge, starting from the center and moving outward. Continue adding weight until the bridge shows signs of structural failure or deformation.
Analysis: Record the maximum weight the bridge sustained. Discuss which parts of the bridge deformed first and why. Compare students’ predictions with the actual outcomes.
Discussion: This experiment not only offers hands-on experience but also instigates critical thinking. Students can modify their designs based on their observations, promoting iterative design, a cornerstone in engineering.
LEGO® Is An Incredible Mechanical Engineering Teaching Tool
Incorporating LEGO® bricks into a college engineering curriculum might seem unconventional, but its benefits are manifold. From tangible lessons in fundamental principles to fostering creativity, LEGO® offers a dynamic platform to bridge the gap between theoretical learning and practical understanding. Plus, it reinforces one of the essential lessons in engineering: learning is iterative, and failure is just a stepping stone to success.