Phyllis McGuire | View from the Village: With Legos, Williams class built community connection

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WILLIAMSTOWN — I selfishly wish my grandchildren lived in Williamstown so I could be with them more often than I am as a long-distance grandmother.

But I was not thinking of myself when I wished my 11-year-old grandson, Jack, was with me in Williams College's Paresky Center on Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

No doubt, Jack's eyes would have gone wide if he had been among the people of all ages gathered around an 8 meter Lego bridge that stretched across Baxter Hall, located on the first floor of Paresky Center.

Composed of thousands of Lego bricks, the bridge was built by associate professor of mathematics Steven Miller and a team of students from his winter study course, The Mathematics of Lego Bricks. Williamstown Elementary students in the Advanced Learning Program also helped to bring the project to fruition.

My grandson has been a Lego enthusiast since he was 3 years old. How happy he was when he discovered Santa Claus had left a big tub of multi-colored Lego bricks beneath the Christmas tree. He tipped all the bricks on the floor, ran his hands through them, as though savoring the moment, and then picked out those he wanted to work with.

I caught on quickly on how to please Jack, and in future, included a Lego model kit with the Christmas gifts I gave him, except for 2015. Then as Christmas approached, I decided to do something different as far as Jack's Lego gift. I gave him a book titled "The Lego Ideas Book: Unlock Your Imagination," which he loves.

The Lego bridge in Baxter Hall was "inspired by the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.,' " said William Howe, a Williams College freshman who played a key role in the bridge building project. Motioning to the Lego bridge, he said. "The towers are red, white and blue like the American flag, and the tower on the right bears the date 2017 and the tower on the left bears the initials MLK."

Children placed toy figures on the Lego bridge to represent people who had marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a civil rights campaign in 1965.

Wearing a Williams sweatshirt, Eli Cytrynbaum, a member of the college's bridge building team, answered questions put to him by the children: " Why did people want to walk across the bridge?" "Who wanted to stop them?"

Miller said of the genesis of the Lego bridge, "We like the idea/symbolism of a bridge ... The purpose is both to talk about what happened and to have a fun challenge seeing how far we can span with a suspension bridge."

Meanwhile, some people sat at tables, enjoying refreshments provided free of charge. I wondered if Jack would have chosen hot chocolate and cookies or an ice cream sundae.

When Miller was asked what he found most satisfying about the "big build," he said, "two parts: first is bringing together so many members from different parts of the community from faculty and their families to students to people from town; second is the fun of solving technical issues in real time. We plan a lot of it beforehand and do some testing, but we leave a lot of it to the day and have the fun of working under pressure and the spotlight."

Students in Miller's winter study class originally wanted to build a bridge that would span the chasm of the second floor of Paresky Center, but Miller said he thought it best not to undertake that particularly challenging project until they knew they could build a bridge of that length.

And now that an 8 meter Lego bridge is a fait accompli, Miller is looking forward to going "higher"next Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Hmm... that gives me almost a year to arrange for Jack to be in Williamstown then.

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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