Familiar, plastic bricks help students think more deeply about urban sustainability - and careers

The class is gathered around a large, low table. Upon which, sprawls (in a miniature way) the layout of a small city, built using Lego elements. It includes roads, apartments, businesses, parks and city utility buildings. Looking closer, nearly all these structures have been modified, some using Lego pieces and others using pieces of paper and plastic plants, to represent features that will make them more energy efficient and more sustainable, to build a better future for the Earth.

Jennifer Mapes and student, Lego city class.

Jennifer Mapes (left) and student with the Lego city.

This class was created by Jennifer Mapes, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Kent State’s Department of Geography. It’s a concept that accomplishes two of her goals: to help with her teaching and to help with her research on community discussions about change and sustainability. “It’s an idea I had for a while, to purchase something that would allow for a kind of 3D mapping and for use as a discussion point,” she said.

“I work in community geography and it’s a way for people to think about what they want their city to be,” Mapes said.

Using plastic to visualize concrete ideas

“This is a fake city. You will need to make up what’s going on behind the scenes, but there should also be physical modifications that we can see. Dream big. You’ll need to discuss challenges, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still make important changes.” – Excerpt from the course description.

Lego city overview

The students began with a basic model of a city, built using Lego pieces. Each student was assigned to a group that would work together to address a specific issue in urban sustainability. Group topics included green building/green buildings, water systems, waste systems, green spaces, food systems, cars, beyond cars, urban heat islands, climate change, urban form and social issues like placemaking. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community's assets, inspiration and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that improve urban vitality and promote people's health, happiness and well-being.

Detail of Lego city

The student’s ideas for making this city more sustainable include adding things like a train or a subway system, parking areas for electric vehicles, paths for scooters or bikes, a community garden and greenhouse, rain barrels and irrigation systems, walkable paths through the city, activity spaces like a soccer field and basketball courts and a community amphitheater, that’s carefully positioned to reduce noise pollution from events there.

Wind power in the Lego city

As the groups develop solutions, there find some crossovers in shared ideas, like, for example a greenhouse that’s connected to a grocery store that’s near an elementary school. The produce grown there can help sustain the business, offer donations to local food banks and provide educational opportunities for the students at the school. Another example would be something as simple as choosing lighter colors for the surfaces of buildings and other structures to reflect heat or building multi-story family housing with vertical gardens and wind power.

Scott Sheridan, Ph.D., a Kent State professor and the chairperson of the Department of Geography, said “I’m excited to see the students’ level of enthusiasm for the Lego sustainable city. I’ve never seen students take such ownership of a shared, class project, integrating in the fun aspects of building a Lego city with understanding of the implications of their decisions and discussions in the real world.”

Limitations engage improvisation

The project has built-in challenges that encourage ingenuity and creative thinking. Some of these challenges come from the Lego elements themselves in the limits in their shapes, the limited quantity of pieces they have and the colors of the Lego elements. One of the students on the green spaces teams commented that it was difficult to design green spaces because they had a very limited quantity of green Lego elements. The water systems team faced a similar challenge in working with a limited quantity of blue Lego elements.

Green elements in the Lego city

Some of the teams addressed these challenges by using non-Lego elements, including leaves from artificial plants and pieces of paper to represent the modifications they were adding to the city.

Using alternate materials in the Lego city

The paradox of plastics

One of the issues the class wrestled with is that the Lego company is built on plastics. However, Mapes observed that their products are durable, long-lasting and retain value. “I read an article that the Lego company is fully sustainable, with low greenhouse emissions that they’ve already implemented with the goal of becoming a net zero carbon company in the next few years,” said Mapes. She has also observed that when she has purchased Lego products recently, they were packaged in paper bags, instead of plastic, and has read that the company also experimenting with plant-based plastics. Lego has also been incorporating representations of sustainability, like Lego electric cars, in some of its sets. There is also the Lego Replay Program that encourages people to send used Lego back to the company for redistribution to children in need.

Students presenting in Lego city class

The concept “clicks” with students

Nina Zraik, a senior environmental studies major, from Tallmadge, Ohio said that through her major she has learned a lot of about environmental issues, but this project has helped her see solutions in practice. “I’ve never actually seen it in a real perspective of actually creating a city to make it a more sustainable place,” she said. “So, I think it was really cool that each group had one element of sustainability that we would work on every week, and they’d be able to do different things so that we could make it one, cohesive city.”

Detail of Lego city

“My group was the water group and we focused on making more sustainable recycling of water. And I thought that was really cool because in my other classes, I’m talking about how to recycle water and reduce your use of water,” Zraik said. “It was cool to see how in this class, the element I took in making this city related to my other classes and it made me want to further my education in that area. So, now I’m kind of considering a career in the water sector.”

“So, I thought it was really interesting and it’s shaping the way I wanted to go,” said Zraik.


Amia Muller

Other students had similar experiences in discovering what sustainability can be. Amia Muller is a junior integrated social studies major from Hudson, Ohio. “I thought this class was really interesting because I had never really thought about sustainability in the way of what we can do in the cities and how unsustainable the things we have in place now are,” she said. “I want to make our world better, but I didn’t know there were real solutions for that.”

I’ve always had sort of a negative view on how to be, I don’t know what the word is ‘ecologically correct,’ I guess. Like people are going to yell at me if I use a straw or a plastic bag or whatever,” Muller said. “But to see that it’s actually way more compassionate than that and it’s a lot more caring and there are solutions I can do that might inconvenience me, but it’s for the greater good, which is really cool to see. That’s cool.”

“So it was enlightening from the first step. And every class that I would go to, I would learn that there’s a new way that week can make things better, which was really encouraging,” she said. “It’s also interesting to see the roadblocks that we have in our way and how it’s really hard to actually make those things happen. But also considering what I can do as just one person to be an advocate for those things or start changing my own life.”

Building a case for learning with Lego

Mapes’ objectives for the class were to help students learn about ways to build more sustainable cities and to also do research to see if using Lego elements to teach were an effective way to teach students this information. “The research question is, is this going to enhance their learning?” she said. “Certainly, for most of the students, it will enhance the experience of the class, or they will think the class was fun, but I want to know: did it help them learn? Did it help them to meet the learning objectives of the class?”

Detail of Lego city

“It did help them to think more about the subject, and I liked that one of the students said that he learned that there are easy ways to change the city to make it more sustainable. I really liked that he said that because one of my learning objectives is to get them to think a little deeper, to learn more about environmental research related to sustainability improvements that cities can do and the personal changes they can make,” Mapes said. “And you’ll notice that they also talked about the things you can’t see, like policy and getting the community on board.”

“That was part of my learning objectives. Could I, could they, use the Lego to get them thinking a bit more and to make it fun?”

Overview of Lego city



POSTED: Thursday, April 27, 2023 09:33 AM
Updated: Wednesday, May 3, 2023 09:43 AM