Teaching science using LEGO®

Eight MIT biological engineering graduate students volunteered for a three-hour shift. They glued the amino acid side chain structures together for the LEGO protein kits.

Biology isn’t always easy to understand, especially for young kids. For me, the difficulty lies in the inability to really see what is happening, especially when you’re learning cellular processes. When you teach kids to count you use objects, you place them in piles and transfer them across from one pile to another. Fractions are often taught using the analogy of a cake cut into slices – the cake exists, you can eat the cake. You can see it. But how do you explain cell division to a child?

Biology lessons have to be fun, they have to be interactive – otherwise youngsters lose interest. I have difficulty explaining to my 8 year old sister the concepts underlying human biology, and often resort to drawings and diagrams. Even adults with no previous background in biology can find the concept of cellular processes such as cell division difficult to conceptualize. When I try to teach my mother about DNA transcription I always draw the cell out, I show her where the nucleus sits and then I draw out the structure of the DNA helix. I gesticulate energetically, trying to explain how the DNA helix unwinds and how transcription factors bind the area where the gene of interest to be transcribed sites.

Kathy Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach and Education Program at MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, has taken teaching of biology to an entirely different level. She creates eye-catching animations of cellular processes like meiosis, mitosis, and DNA translation and transcription, using LEGO! Check out this quirky fun video: LEGO Animation of Mitosis (with descriptive titles)

“As a researcher turned public school teacher, it became obvious that cell processes were more difficult to understand than cell structures. Cell processes are particularly hard to master from the static diagrams found in books, too. So when I was designing the Lego molecules, I wanted to show how the molecules work in the cell– what they can do.” – says Kathy.

Kathy Vandiver designed these amazing molecular models from standard LEGO® bricks. The lesson plans for using the hands-on materials are included in the Teacher Guides.  Science Builders was founded in 2003 to transfer the ownership of these innovative materials to LEGO Education/Pitsco.  Now, educators may purchase the LEGO® Life Science Sets on-line:  http://www.legoeducation.com

“Dynamic LEGO models help students learn cellular processes while they complete the steps to building a protein. Their hands do all the work, while their minds are constantly making decisions about what happens next. It’s a very active form of learning” – says Kathy.

If you’re a teacher or you’re just feeling inspired check out Science Builders, Inc. and the LEGO education websites. LEGO sets exist to help explain

See More Videos

Translation: This is an updated version of the translation video, including catchy music. Former MIT student Amanda Finkelberg used a special degradation process to give the film an old-school look.

Transcription: This video shows genetic transcription, which is how RNA is synthesized from DNA.

Cell Division: Mitosis: In this type of cell division, a mother cell splits into two daughter cells, each with an identical set of chromosomes. This movie was made in QuickTime Pro from 108 shots from a Nikon D100 digital SLR with a 40mm lens.

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