August 27, 2014

Elyria
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Lego program inspires a very small building boom

The folks on Wall Street, they say the economy is bad. They say the housing and construction markets are in the gutter and raw materials are costlier than ever.

But this group of young Elyria builders, they say, “Economy, shmonomy.”

In less than 50 minutes — without change orders or holdups for city permits — a team of 30 construction-minded individuals erected six buildings on Elyria’s Middle Avenue on Friday afternoon: a church, an elementary school, a high school, a hospital, a house and, for good measure, a Wendy’s restaurant.

That they built these from Legos in the basement of a church next to the Middle Avenue headquarters of South Elyria nonprofit Save Our Children is worth mentioning. That all 30 builders ranged in age from 9 to 17 years old, that’s worth mentioning, too.

“Look at that, it’s on time and on budget,” said Elyria Schools Superintendent Paul Rigda, eyeing a foot-high, Legofied version of a yellow, green and blue Elyria High School. “That’s alright. We could learn a lot from this group — they all work together as a team.”

Team-building was just a sliver of this exercise, called “Block Kids Building Program,” a brainchild of the National Association of Women in Construction’s educational arm, NAWIC Education Foundation. Hosted by Save Our Children, the Block Kids program drew officials from Elyria Schools and Regency Construction Services, the construction manager for the new Elyria High School project.

The program is meant to foster an interest in construction and engineering among youth, pushing them to new career aspirations, said Julia Nieves, executive director at SOC.

“Kids are a lot more open-minded than we are,” Nieves said. “If we can expose them early on to things like this, it deposits images and ideas.

“It’s a brain exercise that they should have every day, but it also has implications for later in life. Maybe they’ll think of a cure for a disease, or develop hurricane-safe buildings. We have to cultivate that in them.”

Regency President Tari Rivera — a female engineer in a predominantly male profession — said she worked with NAWIC to introduce the Block Kids program to South Elyria’s students.

It’s especially important to encourage math and engineering interest in female students, Rivera said.

“We always get the boys involved,” she said. “It’s the girls I’m always trying to target. We want them to understand there’s always a place for women. Even if you don’t want to wear a hard hat or operate a jackhammer, you can still use that brain muscle.”

Rivera said she used a jackhammer once, but prefers to use that brain muscle instead.

It has certainly paid off. Her company, Regency, has become the lead outfit for the new Elyria High school project. Both Elyria Schools and Regency have been incorporating the construction project into students’ education.

The students on Friday were all members of SOC or its sister entity, Teen Youth Council, which provide educational and instructive activities to students outside of school.

The program rules were simple enough. The group of 30 was divided into six teams of four or five builders each, with teams commandeering various tables covered in construction equipment: 300 Legos, a dry-erase board for the building’s footprint, some cardboard, tape, plastic, aluminum foil and so on.

“I think it goes to a point up here,” said Javon Oliver, 11, a fifth-grader at Franklin Elementary, trying to sketch a shape of The Empire State Building.

“No, it comes to a crooked thing like this,” said Jaylon Cash, 12, his teammate. “It’s crooked, and then it breaks off into a point.”

“Here, lemme try it,” Javon said. As he worked out the contours with Jaylon, teammate Angelique Rosario, 9, a fourth-grader at Roosevelt Elementary, pondered the likelihood of a career in engineering.

“I think you have to have a lot of materials,” Angelique said. “But I like math and I have a lot of ideas. You can do things however you want to.”

And she did. When Javon and Jaylon’s Empire State Building didn’t turn out as expected, Angelique and co-builder Nibriana Dozier, 9, urged the two boys to turn the building into a church.

By a four-student consensus, the Empire State Building became “The House of the Lord” church.

At a nearby table, Taqui Montague, 12, and his team were putting the finishing touches on a Lego hospital called the “S.O.C. Hospital.” It included a cardboard helicopter, a landing pad and a drive-through for faster service.

“We built a hospital because people need another place to go if they’re sick or injured,” Taqui said. “And if they can’t find a hospital, they can just come to this one.”

Across the room, Superintendent Rigda and Regency Vice President John Sanner were sizing up Ja’Mel Currie’s version of the new Elyria High School. The 9-year-old boy and his teammates built the new high school with 300 Legos, a slice of cardboard and odds and ends.

“You built Elyria High School?” Sanner asked Ja’Mel. “Amazing. You and I have a lot in common. We’re trying to build the same building, but you beat me to it.”