Speed School Community Partnership Promotes City Engineering and Civic Engagement through Legos®

June 24, 2024

By Michael Phillips

It all started with a letter to the mayor. Last year, Mayor Treva Hodges of Charlestown, IN, received a strange request in the mail. Nehemiah, an eight-year-old member of the community, proposed a plan to replace Charlestown State Park with a LEGOLAND®. 

Mayor Hodges, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Louisville in 2019, was inspired by the ambitious request. “I said, ‘Well, we can’t build a park, but we can create a Lego® experience,’” she stated. “So we pulled our resources together and reached out to some UofL alumni that we know.” 

Aiming to develop a camp that focused on building and community, she sought out the expertise of two local leaders in engineering: John Riley and Josh Hillman. Graduates of Speed School with degrees in mechanical (BS 2006) and civil engineering (BS 2004, MEng 2005), respectively, they all began planning the event for Charlestown’s annual Founders Week. 

“When the city had the idea to build a camp for the students,” Riley said, “they had a couple ideas, but they needed some structure around it. That’s when they reached out to us to work with the partners to coordinate the efforts and design the logistics of the program.” 

In partnership with Speed School, they developed a program that centered on interdisciplinary education, community engagement, and fun. “The program was created to talk about city planning, to talk about layout, to talk about utilities and infrastructure, and to help students get a feel for the community,” Hillman said. “Everything that it takes to design a city, and what it takes to function.” 

The inaugural Brick Building Clinic launched in June 2023 and hosted eager students across the Charlestown and Greater Clark Schools communities. Now in its second year at Charlestown Middle School, the event brought together 80 students to “build their vision of the city of Charlestown,” Mayor Hodges said.  

Students were split into groups to design, build, and connect different areas of a brand-new Charlestown. The areas that students would work on included the town center, rural / residential, industry, parks, and bridges. Groups were then given worksheets with blank 4×4 grids to design and plan how their structures would fit together in their specific part of town.  

In each of these teams, students elected a mayor and superintendent to lead their decision-making processes.  

On top of concentrating on building and design principles, Mayor Hodges also found it important to “sneak in a little bit of civics education while they’re there, too,” she said. “Having kids realize that there is a civic and government procedure that goes along with that is critical,” she continued, “because hopefully they take away these lessons about having elections, having plan approvals, and going through those steps into their future as they start to make those decisions for themselves.” 

A Speed School student ambassador works with camp participants during the Charlestown Brick Building Clinic. Speed School co-sponsored the event.

A Speed School student ambassador works with camp participants during the Charlestown Brick Building Clinic. Speed School co-sponsored the event.

Led by their elected officials and assisted by Speed School student ambassadors and camp counselors, the groups got to work deciding on and then developing the structures that would make up their parts of town. From farming equipment and pastures in the rural space to a dedicated city hall in the town center, students were given agency in deciding on what structures they should create and where those structures should go. And in some cases, students would need to change their approach to make their designs work. 

In one instance, students working on a roller coaster found that their cart would grind to a halt around one specific turn. To solve this problem, they tinkered with an incline to give the cart more momentum to round the turn successfully. “They’re really having to be creative with what they’re doing because they may not have all the pieces,” said Carson Burch, a Speed School student ambassador and current mechanical engineering student. “One thing they’re doing is building custom modifications to their sets to make their builds come together. That’s what I think will inspire a future engineer.” 

While each of these parts of town would be created by individual groups, they were all connected by bridges at the end of the day. 

For Mayor Hodges, the now perennial Brick Building Clinic isn’t only successful because it supports student creativity and ingenuity. Instead, she sees the event continuing to thrive because of the way it encourages students to solve problems in interdisciplinary, forward-thinking ways. “You get the humanities side and the history side with modern day thought processes, and then you get to throw in that engineering component,” she said. “I also think it’s great because it helps these kids see U of L as a place that they might want to go in the future. And that’s what we’re building here.” 

View photos from the 2024 Charlestown Brick Building Clinic.