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Note Book

Fall 2006 • Volume 12, Issue 4

From toy box to college chem lab

by Nancy Ridgeway


Top photo, Josiah Miller '08 built an X-ray diffractometer with LEGO bricks. Above, Dr. Dean Campbell, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Kylee Korte '09 look at a red and white replica of the arrangement of atoms in ice and other models made from LEGO bricks.

LEGO® bricks are more than toys. They’re building blocks for learning about chemistry in the classrooms and labs of Dr. Dean Campbell, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

A red and white replica of the arrangement of atoms in ice, a green model of the atomic structure of diamonds, and other similar structures stand as testaments that chemical principles don’t seem as daunting when they’re represented in the form of familiar LEGO bricks.
“I have a philosophy,” Campbell says. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a model is worth a thousand pictures. I’ve gained so many insights by building models and holding them in my hands, rotating and looking at them from different angles.”

He notes the familiar toys also can be used to create models of expensive equipment. “LEGO has electronic modules that can interface with sensors and can drive motors.” Campbell shows a model of an X-ray diffracto-meter and says, “Few students have the opportunity to work with X-rays. The model shines a beam from an ordinary laser pointer through a compact disk stripped of its metal layer. The tiny features on the CD scatter, or diffract, light in different directions. The light sensor on the model detects the diffracted light. If we know the angle of light diffraction, we can calculate the spacing between the features on the CD that diffract the light in the first place. So we’re modeling with light and a CD what scientists do with X-rays to determine the positions of atoms in solids.”

Two Bradley students and three local high school students worked with Campbell over the summer doing research that included working with LEGO bricks. The faculty-student research was funded in part by the Peoria NEXT Research Internship Program, which gives high school and college students a real-world view of how scientists seek answers.

Kylee Korte ’09 says, “If we’re doing something in the lab and one of the LEGO models refers to it, it supplements what we’re doing in lab. It’s easy and familiar, something we’ve always played with, and now we’re using it to model chemistry and increase our understanding.”

Campbell explains how the idea of using LEGO products as teaching tools began. “In 1998, just before I came to Bradley, I was doing post-doctoral research with Professor Arthur Ellis at the University of Wisconsin. We were working on ways to teach about the atomic force microscope. It dawned on us that we could make one out of LEGO bricks. Then it occurred to me that there was so much more we could do. We started a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin and Bradley and got a little money from the National Science Foundation. Part of our collaboration was to develop an online version of a book we titled, Exploring the Nanoworld with LEGO® Bricks.”

“I want to bring into the classroom a book designed for teachers who know a little about chemistry already. The models are good for students from middle school to graduate school. I don’t know of anyone who has built an entire course using this book, but other teachers and I use this to supplement classes.”