WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Last year it was a sturdy Star Destroyer, this year it was a fragile bridge across the massive fireplace in the Paresky Center.
The building of the Lego Bridge on Jan. 18 was one of the focal points of the Williams College Winter Study course "The Mathematics of Lego Bricks," taught by associate math professor Steven Miller. The course often includes a time challenge.
In 2015, some 70 students assembled more than 3,000 pieces in less than 10 minutes to create the 4-foot long destroyer. The bridge was a bit on the fly, and it's symbolism far different than the prior construct of imperialism.
A few weeks before winter courses began on Jan. 4, the Chaplin's Office and Davis Center asked Miller if he and his class would be interested in building the Lego bridge to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day Jan. 18.
For Miller it seemed "exceptionally fitting" that a bridge be chosen over any other structure for that occasion.
"When I hear the word bridge I think of the phrase 'bridging our differences,' but I'm also reminded that a bridge must be made of pieces," said Miller. "Lego bricks are wonderful building blocks, showing the strength that can arise when differences are embraced and integrated."
So a crowd gathered to watch is construction on that Monday afternoon, after community volunteer efforts undertaken in the morning.
"We promised to complete the Lego bridge by 4:30. But for the longest time it didn't look like that would happen," Miller said.
With a few minutes to spare, the professor and a student team from Williams and Williamstown Elementary School overcame the problems they had encountered and kept to their promise.
The bridge building also had another purpose. Miller was the lead in a fundraiser for the benefit of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. He was spurred to undertake running that fundraiser after reading that an annual Braden's Love Lego Drive was in need of donations. Organized by the parents of 7-year-old Braden Berner of Kansas, who died from a form of cancer, the drive collects Lego sets and distributes them to ill children at St. Jude's Hospital.
"We have collected $600 for St. Jude's," Miller reported.
As the class, which ran from Jan. 4 through Jan. 28, began only two weeks before the "big build" was to be accomplished, there was not enough time to collect as many Lego bricks as needed or wanted.
"I disassembled a lot of nice sets we had from previous years," said Miller. "My favorite was incorporating much of the Sydney Opera House; the base plates became a large part of the bridge's road, and the side pieces contributed to the rise of the tower."
Erik Bovini, a Williams freshman and one of the builders, recalled that on the first day of class, "We had giant aspirations to build a bridge spanning the second floor chasm of Paresky, which included the idea of some students using rock-climbing gear to construct the middle portions.
"Unfortunately, various circumstances [prevented us] from undertaking this build."
Instead, they built a Lego 10-foot suspension bridge on the mantle over the fireplace.
According to Miller, preliminary work was started on Jan. 10, and builders started working "in earnest" at 12:30 at Paresky Center.
"The best part for me was collaborating with my classsmates," said Connor Mulhall, also Williams freshman. "Using Legos as the medium for the bridge reminded me just how much fun they are to play with and how creative people can be ... Everyone came up with great ideas throughout the two weeks we had to prepare, and professor Miller really got us to embrace the challenge of creating things on the fly with many of our peers watching."
One of the focal points of the "Mathematics of Lego Brick"s course was still a work in progress as the course was ending: creating a Lego piece that the Lego Group would like enough to buy and market.
Miller has been a Lego enthusiast since he was a young child and now enjoys using the construction toys as teaching tools.
"There are many ways to use Lego bricks as a springboard to math. Combinatorics is all about counting," the professor said. "One of the simplest question is given a set of bricks, how many different shapes are there? Can we have bricks connect at a general angle, or must it be 90 or 180 degrees?"
There is no doubt the Legos that Miller ordered for the "big build" at Paresky that did not arrive in time will be put to good use.
"For next years festivities," he said. "We are having a bridge spanning the open space on the second floor of Paresky."
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