Kids love LEGO building blocks, but can playing with cute colored blocks spawn the next generation of engineers?

Absolutely, says Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corporation.

“Building even the simplest creation from scratch introduces kids to principles of geometry and physics in action,” said Marie Planchard, DS SolidWorks’ director of world education markets. “This makes math and science not just relevant, but also potentially a lifetime passion. When geometry and physics can make or break a project – whether it’s a LEGO car, robot, or autonomous undersea vehicle for competition – suddenly math and science are more than problems on a page, they’re the keys to the kingdom. Engineers employ this kind of thinking every day.”

To that end, DS SolidWorks on November 8 introduced two new free tutorial programs for creating LEGO cars and sophisticated robots with SolidWorks CAD software. The tutorials include a dozen lessons, videos and part models for download. Projects range from elementary through college level, with straightforward instructions supporting those without prior SolidWorks experience.

As students learn the foundation of physics and engineering, they gain instant proficiency in the world’s most widely used 3D design software. Lessons get progressively more sophisticated, introducing higher-level math and physics principles via integrated SolidWorks capabilities such as simulation. Students engage as deeply as they would with a video game while acquiring valuable skills and knowledge, and earning a sense of accomplishment.

“We’ve discovered a lot about learning styles over recent decades,” says Planchard. “Although some students will grasp math and science in the abstract, the world is full of intelligent tactile learners who need to do, touch, and make things, whether virtually on a SolidWorks screen or in their garage. In school and in society, we’ve gotten away from making things. But when you let students do that, and when you add in the element of teamwork and competition, they’re hooked.”

Planchard’s team articulated these messages at the inaugural USA Science and Engineering Festival (see video) recently in Washington, D.C. With the help of SolidWorks partner the STEM Academy, thousands of students raced dragsters and built their own elastic materials (Planchard’s blog posts).

The festival wrapped up a week of student-focused activities such as the White House Science Fair, where middle and high school students from around the country presented award-winning projects. “It’s in these pursuits that talents are discovered and passions are lit, and the future scientists, engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs are born,” observed President Obama.

Competing in LEGOs and beyond

DS SolidWorks has shipped nearly a million educational software licenses, and sponsors a wide range of student activities, including:

Concrete Canoe – This contest for college civil engineering students involves designing, making, and racing a vessel, often relying on stress and flow analysis in SolidWorks Simulation software. Sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Solar Splash – Students design, build, and race solar-powered boats. SolidWorks Sustainability software is especially relevant.

Structural Steel Bridge – This structural engineering competition requires design, fabrication, and analysis of a scale steel bridge. Students are judged on construction speed, stiffness, lightness, economy, display and efficiency. Sponsored by the American Institute of Steel Construction.

Unmanned Systems – College and high school students create autonomous unmanned vehicles for land and sea. This multidisciplinary competition involves all the simulation realms and comprises electronics, software and mechanical systems. Sponsored by Association for Unmanned Vehicles International and the Marine Advanced Technology Center (MATE).

Vehicle racing – High school and college students design, build, and race Formula-style cars and hybrid, aero, snowmobile, and Baja vehicles. Sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

FIRST Robotics – The premier high school robotics competition. Students design, build, and put robots to the test. Founded by inventor Dean Kamen to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology.

FIRST LEGO League – A robotics program for 9- to 16-year-olds (9 to 14 in the US and Canada).

MIT Lemelson InvenTeams – InvenTeams are teams of high school students, teachers, and mentors that receive grants up to $10,000 each to invent technological solutions to real-world problems.

“Hands-on activities cultivate real-life skills students will need in their careers,” says Planchard. “And whether you become an engineer, cake baker, or judge, you need basic science and mathematics competency, at least until you make lasting career decisions. Adding the competitive element builds on this foundation and develops collaboration, teamwork and innovative problem-solving on deadline.”