Students at the College have always had unique class choices for their Winter Study terms, but this year was the first time they could play with LEGO bricks while getting academic credit and setting a Guinness World Record. In “The Mathematics of LEGO Bricks,” taught by Professor of Mathematics Steven Miller, students were able to assemble a 3152-piece LEGO “Star Wars Super Star Destroyer,” a LEGO set notorious among avid LEGO builders for its size and complexity, in 10 minutes and 21 seconds, breaking the previous Guinness World Record.
While Miller set the goal time as under 10 minutes, neither the students nor Miller were disappointed with their performance just shy of the mark. “Even though we didn’t get the goal we wanted, we were correctly putting on more than five bricks per second which I think is a staggering number,” Miller said.
So how exactly did this unique challenge come about? Miller has been a fan of LEGO from an early age, but that wasn’t the only reason he chose to teach this class. “For me, it’s asking, what can we do to reach people? What can we do to get people who might not normally be interested in something to give it a second look?” Miller said.
As expected, the lure of LEGO bricks and childhood nostalgia was more than enough to attract students to the class. “I was looking through the list of courses and then I just see bam! LEGO in bold letters,” Ricky Faillace ’17 said, echoing the thoughts of many of his peers. “When I was little, my brother had a really cool LEGO set and I was a little bit jealous. I liked the childhood aspect,” Karen Haun ’16 said.
Class began with lectures on the mathematics of LEGO bricks, from game theory to combinatorics. Even though LEGO bricks might have been the initial reason students noticed Miller’s class, they still found the math they learned interesting and useful. “I thought it was pretty interesting to see how you can use LEGO blocks to explain combinatorics. That way you end up with how many different ways can you combine blocks with a certain number of pegs,” Faillace said.
Following these lectures, the class began to prepare for its final challenge by addressing the important organizational issues of taking on the “Star Wars Super Star Destroyer.” For Miller, this was an especially important part of the class. “I just wanted to show my students something they might not have seen, as well as some issues from the real world.” he said. “How do you build a team? How do you run a team? How do you take a major project and break it up into pieces?”
In order to tackle the project, the students split up into seven teams based on the seven different bags in which the Destroyer pieces were packaged. Each bag had a leader and a group of four students assigned to specialize in assembling its parts.
Miller assigned this 10-minute goal based on a group of five people that had previously taken 90 minutes to build a LEGO “Star Wars Super Star Destroyer.” According to Miller, 10 minutes “seemed short enough so that it would be very tough to reach but high enough so that there was a chance of reaching it.”
Miller proved to be right on, as students went from a 15-minute assembly time on this specific piece to six minutes. Having a target time was also important to Miller’s goal of teaching students lessons they would encounter in the real world, but not necessarily in a classroom. “It’s not enough to do something well. It should also be done in a reasonable amount of time,” he said.
On the day of assembly, the class set up shop in Paresky with an audience of 300. “I certainly wasn’t expecting to see Paresky fill up like that,” Faillace said. The crowd made the students nervous, but it also increased their excitement. “At first it was normal and then I looked up and there were 100 people above us watching and that was really cool,” added Scott Pelton-Stroud ’15, who was appointed by Miller as second-in-command of the operation.
While in their previous three attempts in Paresky that day, including a practice run, the students were not able to hit their goal of 10 minutes, students still offered positive reviews of their Winter Study experience. “I was surprised in a good way at how intense the class ended up being,” Pelton-Stroud said.
Still waiting on official verification of their record from Guinness, both Miller and his students have not given up hope of breaking the 10-minute barrier. They plan to make another attempt in the spring, this time with the help of some students from local elementary schools. There are also plans to start a LEGO club at Williams. Interested students can contact Miller for more information about the club or to be part of the next world record attempt. As for the “Star Wars Super Star Destroyer” itself, one can be found, in all its assembled glory, on display at the Student Life office.