Queenie Zee Ng sat back on her heels and stared eye-level at the hodgepodge of Legos scattered across the table.
“Why is this layer sticking out?” she asked, undoing a row of tiny yellow bricks. “This is really hard to build. Yuna, do you get it?”
Her daughter, Yuna Ng, 8, flashed a smile with deep dimples and slid the pieces into the right slots. They hugged, then started on the next layer. Zee Ng of Palo Alto and her daughter were building a piece of the human spinal cord for the Stanford University brain development department in an attempt to break two Guinness world records, one for longest spinal cord and another for most spinal cords. More than 1,200 people registered for Saturday’s event.
Learning how brain works
But the real emphasis was on STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math — education. There has been a decline in students pursuing careers in the field, and organizers hoped the day with Legos would help teach kids that building and learning about the body could be fun.
“The earlier we can get them excited about learning, the better,” organizer Amanda Martino said. “We want them to learn how the brain works, but it was easier to build a spine than a brain. This is just a fun way to engage kids with science.”
Each individual spinal cord consisted of 677 Lego pieces, which were used to build the five large, 12 medium and seven small sections that made up the backbone. The columns were strung on bright pieces of rope and hung from the ceiling. Each one boasted a different color scheme: Cotton-candy pink with purple; blue, orange and green; and a single all-white strand.
Yuna pantomimed standing completely straight and tried to walk.
“The spine isn’t exactly straight,” the girl laughed. “If it was I wouldn’t be able to move. All the layers help me bend. And my back goes from big at the bottom to small at the top.”
At a nearby table, Claire Jittipun, 7, of Palo Alto stacked a rainbow of colored bricks onto her structure.
“What if my bones were actually this color?” she said to her mom, Jeanne Deleon. “I would want them all to be black and some green. Wait. I would want them to be all the colors of the rainbow.”
Deleon laughed and leaned over to pick up a stray brick on the floor.
“I want them to have this curiosity when they are older,” she said, referring to Claire and her other daughter, Caroline, 9. “It’s important that they have exposure to all kinds of learning. When they get older, they can find their passion and take off. At this age they should be soaking in everything they can.”
The event was a good opportunity to help kids learn about their brains and bodies, said Robert McLaren, an instructor at Playwell TEK-nologies, the group that helped put together the event.
“Most kids love Legos,” he said. “When they first got here, they wanted to build cars and weapons and houses. Having an easily accomplished goal helps guide them and coordinates the chaos. There’s a lot of laugher and a lot of learning going on here, for both parents and the kids.”
Some of the visitors were so hooked that not even the promise of lunch could distract them from their work. Mary Beth Leff of Menlo Park snapped photos of her 11-year-old twins, Sophia and Lucy, building, and then tried to coax them into leaving.
“They’ll give up lunch just to keep building these spinal cords,” she said. “I think it’s because it’s so real to them. It’s not a kit where you build a castle or a car. We are going to try and build them again on our own tonight.”
‘Learning so much’
Lucy looked up from a laminated instruction manual and placed another brick on her masterpiece, which sent another piece plummeting to the floor.
“That’s what you call a cracked vertebrae,” she said, grinning. “The hard part is connecting it all together. I love it. I’m learning so much today.”