Bad Coffee and Graph Paper: A History of HRNM LEGO Shipbuilding

NORFOLK, VA (February 7, 2015) Guests at the Fourth Annual LEGO Shipbuilding Event and Competition look at contestant models in the 10-12 age category. The event was held at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum inside Nauticus. (Photo by Matthew Eng/NHF/Released)

NORFOLK, VA (February 7, 2015) Guests at the Fourth Annual LEGO Shipbuilding Event and Competition look at contestant models in the 10-12 age category. The event was held at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum inside Nauticus. (Photo by Matthew Eng/NHF/Released)


By Matthew T. Eng

This past weekend’s annual Brick by Brick: LEGO Shipbuilding Event at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) was another resounding success. More than 2,000 people attended this year’s competition, making it the biggest and best one yet. It was the second year that the Naval Historical Foundation joined the event as a sponsor.

Instead of writing a recap of the day’s series of activities, I decided to do something a little different. I want to offer a bit of history on the event itself. I am in a select group of individuals fortunate enough to have been involved with the project since its inception in 2011. It’s amazing to see the impact that a few plastic bricks has on the face of naval history and museum education. Here it is.

It started with a grand idea, countless cups of bad coffee, and some photocopied graph paper.

Winter 2011 – Bricks and Ships

In mid-January 2011, I sent a write up to the museum director for an idea that my coworker Laura Orr and I were throwing around earlier that winter for a possible new educational program and public event. We knew we wanted to do something with a medium popular enough to appeal to kids and adults alike. We dug back into the recesses of our childhood and came up with LEGOs…for a naval museum. How? We would use LEGOs to build ships, specifically Navy vessels built in the likeness of the many ship models displayed inside the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Neither Laura nor myself had any experience building LEGO ships before. Hell, the last time I touched a LEGO set, Saved by the Bell was on television. We hoped our bosses liked the idea enough to submit it for possible grant funding that spring.

The only problem we had in the weeks before the grant deadline was coming up with a snappy title. These kinds of programs live and die by the name associated with it. We threw around a few ideas to each other. Everything from the simple “Brick Ships” to the weighty “The Building Blocks of Creativity: LEGO Ships” was considered. The first official title of the program came from the name of a Paramore song an ex-girlfriend of mine used to listen to ad nauseam. I changed “Brick by Boring Brick” into “Brick by Brick, Ship by Ship: The HRNM LEGO Shipbuilding Program” and hit send on the email.

The Original Title of the Program

The Original Title/Concept of the Program


We wanted the potential museum event and program to show attendees “that LEGOs are much more than a toy or cherished pastime.” To us, they were the literal “building blocks to an imaginative and inspired learning experience.” Our superiors at HRNM agreed with us, and submitted it for grant funding a week later. Thanks to TOSA (The Tidewater Officers’ Spouses’ Association), HRNM received a grant to purchase the necessary bricks (exactly 17,660 to begin with) to start the program.

Summer 2011: What Now?

I remember sitting in my office at HRNM and looking flustered. It’s now May 2011. Approximately twenty boxes filled with LEGOs were stacked in front of me. Where to begin? The least we could do was decide when we wanted to hold the first event. I left that to Laura, the organized one. After talking it over with HRNM Education Director Lee Duckworth, Laura, at the time the Special Events Coordinator, planned to hold the event in February of the following year. Between the holiday season, museum outreaches, and summer vacations, February seemed like the optimal month to hold an event. She searched through her calendar and picked a date that would work for everyone: 4 February 2012.

What now? The summertime months were the only time we had to plan and organize. Once the fall school season hit, the entire educational staff would be busy conducting educational outreach programs across the Hampton Roads region. If we had enough time to plan (we didn’t), it would need to be done during the summer. The task at hand was herculean – we had little to no idea how to create the ships that would encompass the “build a ship” portion of the event. Thankfully that summer, we had Jordan Hock and Samuel Nelson as education interns.

Summer Intern Samuel Nelson graphs out the beginnings of a LEGO Ship, Summer 2011. (Photo by Matthew Eng/HRNM)

Summer Intern Samuel Nelson graphs out the beginnings of a LEGO Ship, Summer 2011. (Photo by Matthew Eng/HRNM)


Jordan and Sam are the two individuals responsible for creating and designing the LEGO ships we would eventually use for the inaugural shipbuilding program. Sam was particularly excited by the project. Not a bad way to spend a few hours a day for an internship, right? My intern days at HRNM were spent sitting inside a 105-degree room aboard USS Wisconsin with little or no breaks. I’ll take some plastic bricks over a stank sauna reeking of cosmoline any day. Sam eventually created a large-scale model of a Civil War ship that would become the “Mini Monitor” used in the first and second years of the event.

The original concept for the “build a ship” portion of the program was to create ships by layers, from the keel up all they way to the mast, a principle that still survives today. Building brick ships in this unorthodox manner required us to color code each layer. It was our best bet to merge the educational aspects of simple graphs and plotting and LEGO bricks together.

The bane of my existence: Graphing LEGO Ships in Microsoft Excel.

The bane of my existence: Graphing LEGO Ships in Microsoft Excel.

The only way to map each successive ship layer was by using graph paper. Graph paper translated well to Microsoft Excel, the program I used to design and print the “build a ship” instructions for the past three years. It was also easy to photocopy in case we made mistakes. Plenty were made. Thank God there was a recycling bin nearby.

I sat there that summer and sipped Navy coffee as I watched Jordan and Sam do their diligent work. The taste of the coffee was bitter, but the ideas that came from drinking it made it all worthwhile. Jordan mused that the Navy coffee at HRNM was the only caffeinated coffee in the world that made you more tired with each cup. Let’s just say that it was a very tiring summer. With a coffee mug in one hand and a LEGO brick in another, we began creating the ships that would comprise the first LEGO Shipbuilding program.

The graphs sketched out on paper from the ship designs were crude at best. But it was a start. By the time we said our goodbyes to Jordan and Sam in August of that year, the basis for the program was laid. It was my task to take those simple graphs they created and translate them into step-by-step instructions for visitors to use during the event. I wish I could say it was simple. By the time I finished the first set of ship instructions, I felt a wave of nausea hit me every time I saw a grid with numbers and letters. My computer taunted me at night. Excel knew all my weaknesses. I faced my demons and dun in, completing the instructions over the course of a month. Thankfully, the learning experience was a valuable necessary evil for the success of the program.

HRNM Intern Jordan Hock works diligently on LEGO Models, Summer 2011 (Photo by Matthew Eng/HRNM)

HRNM Intern Jordan Hock works diligently on LEGO Models, Summer 2011 (Photo by Matthew Eng/HRNM)


Meanwhile, Laura did the diligent work of planning the event itself, getting user groups and cold-calling interested media entities to push interest out. It worked. By the time the fall/winter outreach season hit, we were in good shape. We had all of the ships, kits, instructions, and sponsors signed up by Christmas. All we could do was wait.

January flew by into February. Game time. I sent Laura a text message on the night before the first event. The message said three words: “Will people come?” A few minutes later, she also replied with three words: “I hope so.” With the optimistic hope that a free event involving LEGOs would attract people, I settled in for a restless night.

The First Few Events

The Shipbuilding Contest Winners from 2012

The Shipbuilding Contest Winners from 2012


Thankfully, people came. Nearly a thousand people attended the first event. Space was tight. Looking back now, I am amazed that we managed to fit both the “build a set” portion and the shipbuilding competition all within the 5,000 square foot museum. HARDLUG, a local LEGO user group, came out and put on an excellent display of ships for guests to gawk at. The “make a ship” portion, albeit cramped into the Civil War gallery, went well. The volunteers expertly handled the mass of people wanting to follow along with the kit-built instructions. The question I kept getting that day as I helped kids build the kit-built ships was, “which ships are we going to make next year?” For a man who cried tears of frustration over the instructions, it was good to know that the general public wanted to see more.

Prize packages for the competition winners, 2013

Prize packages for the competition winners, 2013

Most guests came as a family to admire the shipbuilding contestant’s homemade ship creations. Some even used the LEGOs we provided to build and enter the contest. Contest participants started entering in a trickle and slowly built up to a steady stream of eager LEGO enthusiasts. By the time Laura and I started to judge the competition, staff members were placing ships on top of museum exhibits and on the floor of the museum.

It was surely hard work for us. It was just as much tiring work and dedication for those attendees who put the time in to enter the contest. Many guests planned to try harder for another entry the following year. We ended the day on a high note, watching the smiling faces as they left the building. We had a lot to build on for the next year.

Part Deux

The program grew up right before our eyes. We knew we wanted to design new ships and offer more prizes for participants in 2013. The old designs made by Jordan and Sam became available for download on the HRNM website (and still are). We also knew we wanted it to be bigger – more participants, more staff involvement, more payoff for all involved. Building off the many “lessons learned” from 2012, we got our wish in spades. Information about the event and its design got in the Daily Press and the Los Angeles Times. The museum was certainly onto something.

NORFOLK (Feb. 2, 2013) Children and adults participate in a LEGO Shipbuilding contest at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. The event was dedicated to teaching children engineering, math and science through LEGO building blocks. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jonathan M. Sunderman/Released)

NORFOLK (Feb. 2, 2013) Children and adults participate in a LEGO Shipbuilding contest at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. The event was dedicated to teaching children engineering, math and science through LEGO building blocks. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jonathan M. Sunderman/Released)


The second program in 2013 went well. The ship design kits were new. The prizes were bigger and better than ever. The free play area expanded with more LEGOs donated from a bevvy of interested parties. Everyone had a chance to be involved in his or her own way. The shipbuilding competition grew fiercer in intensity. For Laura and I, judging was no longer a breeze – it was legitimately difficult. I remember seeing the look of disappointment on a few kids’ faces when their name was not announced in their age group. One child in particular struck out at me. I went up to him after the winners were announced and asked him if he was all right. “Yes, I think so,” he said as he sniffed the streaky snot onto his fleece jacket. “I just have to try harder next year.” I smiled and gave him a high five and a pat on the back. To this day, that specific moment is my favorite memory tied to the LEGO event.

Rebuilding

In March of 2013, Laura sadly left the museum for a position at Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum, only a month after she helped plan the museum’s most successful program in its history. It was a good fit for her. I was saddened by the loss of her creative force; the dynamic duo now split up to fight crime separately across the Chesapeake Bay.

LEGO Shipbuilding Program at Bayside Middle School, June 2013

LEGO Shipbuilding Program at Bayside Middle School, June 2013

With Laura gone for the time being, I set about planning for an educational outreach program with LEGOs to bring to the school system. With another TOSA grant gratefully under the museum’s belt, I took to the drawing board for ideas on how to translate the success of a public event into a SOL-specific program that incorporated STEM principles. After a few phone calls and emails with some teachers who attended our previous workshops, Bayside Middle School in Virginia Beach agreed to be our test case. The event went well. Several of the students in the 7th grade class had attended one or both of the HRNM LEGO Shipbuilding programs.

I left the museum less than a year after Laura to take my current position in D.C. Ironically; Laura came back to the Naval Museum on the same day that I checked into NHF. One of the first things we talked about on the phone was the LEGO Shipbuilding Competition. It was November by this point, and next to nothing was done in preparation for the event. Thankfully, we rallied and came up with the ships and designs with the help of several HRNM staff members. I once again set to transforming graph paper to instruction booklet. Cue the Microsoft Excel nightmare.

Leaning on the back of Laura’s exceptional organizational skills and my expert use of procrastination, it all came together by the first few weeks of January 2014. I traveled down from Washington, D.C. to attend the event, this time as a representative and volunteer. The Foundation helped sponsor some of the prizes for the shipbuilding contestants. As such, I wanted to be there to show support to Laura and the rest of the dedicated staff at HRNM.

NORFOLK (Feb. 8, 2014) Judges examine an entry during the Brick-by-Brick Lego Shipbuilding Competition at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Participants in the annual competition used Lego building blocks to create ships while learning basic concepts of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Adam Austin/Released)

NORFOLK (Feb. 8, 2014) Judges examine an entry during the Brick-by-Brick Lego Shipbuilding Competition at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Participants in the annual competition used Lego building blocks to create ships while learning basic concepts of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Adam Austin/Released)


Over 1,500 guests attended the event. It was great to see all of the familiar faces I encountered from previous event. David Colamaria, the man responsible for pointing me to the position I have now, also came down from D.C. with several professionally made LEGO ships. Navy and local media turned out to interview participants, organizers, and enthusiasts like Dave. The local LEGO kids club Bricks 4 Kidz demoed their robotics programs for guests in the conference room. The size and complexity for the 2014 event towered over the original concept and design from 2012.


Everything continues to expand with LEGO Shipbuilding, from the space required to the number of partnerships. The first year of the program, we used tape to separate each participant’s personal space, or “dry dock,” in the make a ship area. By the third year, we used cardboard to separate table space. This year (2015), HRNM staff managed to create reusable dry docks thanks to a generous donation from Home Depot.

Thanks to everyone who came out to this year’s event. I look forward to seeing you in 2016.

Saying Thanks 

NORFOLK, VA (February 7, 2015) HRNM Deputy Educaiton Director Laura Orr works with HRNM ED Director Lee Duckworth sorting out volunteer lists on the morning of the event. (Photo by Matthew Eng/NHF/Released)

NORFOLK, VA (February 7, 2015) HRNM Deputy Educaiton Director Laura Orr works with HRNM ED Director Lee Duckworth sorting out volunteer lists on the morning of the event. (Photo by Matthew Eng/NHF/Released)


This post is really more of a tribute to Laura. She is hands down the hardest working woman in naval history. There is no question. Some of her co-workers affectionately call her “Mother Goose.” I’m happy to have the privilege of calling her both a colleague and dear friend.

I’ve had the pleasure to work with her for five years now – first as the Deputy Educator at HRNM, and now in my current position as Digital Content Developer at NHF. As far as naval history and education goes, Laura will always be my partner in crime. The yin to my yang. The syrup to my pancakes. The mustard to my history hot dog. She is the Lennon to my McCartney, even if I felt more like Ringo at times. I cannot begin to describe how or why she does what she does on a daily basis. Her organizational skills baffle me. It’s that meticulous attention to detail that made this year’s shipbuilding event such a resounding success. I can only expert more next year.

We created a lot of amazing things together while working at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. I look back fondly at the bouts of laughter and tears. There were both. What we managed to do with a little bit of creativity and a lot of hard work with LEGOs is by far my favorite. For those who have attended any of these events at HRNM, I hope it shows.

10955213_10101293253426897_639453997025158245_nI cannot begin to assume that I was the driver in all of this. I am merely here for the ride. Thankfully, Laura is a fantastic pilot. She continues to be the voice of reason and a guiding source of inspiration for anyone interested in pursuing a career in naval history or museum education. Although she will be humble and accept thanks with a dose of humility largely unseen in a business where credit is not given to those so deserving, she warrants our thanks.

After a very busy and frustrating beginning to the winter months of 2014, I told her that I was going to complete the instructions for the shipbuilding event as planned, but it would be for the last time. Four years of stress-induced crying onto a laptop computer was enough for me. The Foundation would continue to partner for the event, but my days as instruction designer were over.

By the time I got back to DC late Saturday night, I knew I couldn’t let her down. Why? Because the juice is worth the squeeze. The hard work is all worth it. People continue to enjoy the event. I saw the smiling faces on Saturday and knew I couldn’t let go of doing everything I could to make next year’s event another big success. For that, I hope she will allow me to continue to do my part.

Laura has an email. It’s laura.l.orr@navy.mil. If you have a second, take a minute to write her a note of thanks or congratulations. She deserves it. It’s the first thing I am going to do after I hit “publish” on this post. Need more? Go to their Facebook page and “like” it. Better yet, make sure you go to ours if you haven’t already!

I also want to thank everyone involved in this year’s LEGO Shipbuilding event: The volunteers (especially them!), the sponsors, and of course the rest of the dedicated staff at HRNM. None of this would have been possible without each of these pieces put together. Thank you for being a second home for me, even when my backyard now backs onto a different scene in a different city.

It’s amazing what a few pieces of Danish plastic can do to impact and enrich the lives of so many people.

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2 Responses to Bad Coffee and Graph Paper: A History of HRNM LEGO Shipbuilding

  1. Pingback: A Look at the 2016 HRNM LEGO Shipbuilding Event | Naval Historical Foundation

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