LEGO could hold key to getting more engineers into the workforce

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sadie Pond, 4, of Beaverton, plays with Lego truck she built at Little Engineers, the Tigard business teaches students about engineering and robotics through LEGOS. Roger Collier is building better people, one LEGO brick at a time.

Tucked into a large business park along Southwest Scholls Ferry Road, his business is filled with the cacophonous sounds of 4-year-olds playing with LEGOs.

“Look at this one,” a boy shouts, holding up a dump truck he made of bright yellow blocks. “This one’s mine!”

It’s something children have been doing for decades, and it was that spirit of building that led Collier to open Little Engineers in the first place earlier this month.

Collier’s goal is simple: Inspire young people to get involved in engineering and sciences through the medium they enjoy most — playing with LEGOs.

“I hear all the time from parents that their kid isn’t into sports, all they want to do is build with LEGOs,” Collier said.

The brightly colored building blocks are a great way to teach kids about the importance of science and math, he said.

“They are a great engineering tool,” Collier said. “(Kids) don’t realize it, but they are doing scale model building, and it breathes creativity into the engineering process.”

Check it out

Who: Little Engineers

Where: 10110 SW Nimbus Ave., Suite B-8, in Tigard

Phone: (503) 451-5948

Collier’s hope is that more young people will start to think of engineering and technology as possible careers — something he believes this country badly needs.

“America as a country isn’t promoting education and being smart as cool,” he said. “We’re promoting people like Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. They sell millions of dollars in products, and people are racing to be like them and nobody is saying that Bill Gates is cool, or the engineer who designed the iPhone. Those are the real rock stars, and we are losing that.”

‘Everyone should have a chance’

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Little Engineers offers courses for students aged 3 to 12. The business hopes to get more young people interested in engineering and technology through toys and games. Working in the high-tech industry for the past 30 years, Collier has been involved in several projects, including building audio equipment and designing atmospheric controls for greenhouses.

Collier started working with children about a decade ago, after his third-grade son said he wanted to drop out of school.

“He was bored and correcting the teacher on things,” he said. “He was not engaged with the other kids.”

Collier started looking for an outlet for his son, and the family stumbled upon LEGO robotics competitions, where students build small motorized machines to compete against other teams to complete tasks.

Transfixed, Collier was soon hosting after-school activities with the Oregon City School District to coach other students interested in engineering and robotics.

Working with LEGO Education, Carnegie Mellon University and Georgia Tech University, Collier has developed a curriculum designed to get students interested in engineering and robotics.

“Anybody can do it — any age, race, it doesn’t matter,” Collier said. “Anyone can put LEGOs together.”

His classes in Oregon City were eventually dropped due to budget cuts, as was Collier’s next foray, when he moved to Georgia to head up robotics across the state’s middle schools.

Collier said he was fed up with relying on others for funding and decided to open Little Engineers as a way to bring camps and classes to anyone.

“Everyone should have a chance,” Collier said.

The company plans to offer week-long summer camps for students aged 3 to 12, and adult courses are also available, he said.

“We have people in their 30s and 40s signed up to take our workshops,” he said. “Instead of a company retreat, why not make them build a robot together, which is a lot more trying. It gets people to think in a different way.”

‘This is the first’

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Little Engineers owners Roger Collier and Czarina Boyce opened the company May 1 after years of summer camps and programs around Portland. In the courses, students are introduced to simple engineering concepts, which they can build for themselves using LEGOs to see how they work.

The older the student, the more advanced the lesson, until they are building and programming robots and machines on their own.

It might look like playing, but according to Collier, it’s serious learning.

“I have kids who are 9 years old explaining the Pythagorean theorem to their parents, but they don’t necessarily know that’s what it is,” Collier said. “It’s giving them those concepts but in a totally different manner of delivery. It’s math, but they aren’t thinking about it that way.”

You won’t see the machines his students are building at the LEGO Store, Collier said. Working through LEGO’s educational division, the blocks are part of a curriculum designed to teach students about the basics of science, physics and engineering.

The company opened its doors May 1 and has a grand opening set for Sunday, June 2. But even with limited exposure in the past three weeks, Collier said the community response has been phenomenal, with courses filling up.

“Kids come in so excited,” he said. “They know that today is LEGO day.”

The company is already in talks to open franchises in Vancouver, Wash.; San Diego, Calif.; and Atlanta, Ga.

“This is just the first,” Collier said.

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