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Piece By Piece, Williams Students Embark On Light-Speed Voyage

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
Members of the Williams Lego team frantically constructing the 3,152-piece LEGO Super Star Destroyer.

Do or do not. There is no try. That’s what a group of Williams College students learned over winter break when they worked to set a world record with LEGOs. WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief Jim Levulis — not many Bothans — has more information.Star Wars and LEGOs go hand in hand for anyone who has come of age in recent decades. And sometimes a lot of hands.

“We have 60 kids all working together,”  said Tyler Duff. “Each one has their role, none is more important than the other.”

Duff is part of the command staff for the light-speed build of the LEGO Super Star Destroyer. The group set out to piece the ship together in under 10 minutes. They failed to do so by 21 seconds last year. So what’s their battle plan? Freshman Sam Alterman explains.

“Look, it’s a 3,152-set and the only way to build it is piece by piece,” said Alterman.

Seems pretty simple. But take a moment to picture about 60 people all trying to put together more than 3,000 pieces of plastic without one mistake.

Before all that craziness, teams surround seven tables, each charged with piecing together one bag of LEGOs. They and the audience wait for the “Go” signal and the first task…getting the LEGOs out of a taped box, reminiscent of a Christmas morning.

Then all outer space breaks loose.

So how did more than 50 people end up sitting in an auditorium watching young adults build a LEGO spaceship on a Wednesday afternoon? Meet Professor Steven Miller, the self-acclaimed Darth Vader behind the winter session class with the coolest title…The Mathematics of LEGO Bricks.

“Now I do not expect in most of my calculus classes that my students will be doing calculus when they get older,” Miller said. “Similarly I don’t expect my students will be building Super Star Destroyers when they get older. But, the lessons that they’re learning while they’re doing this. For instance, one of the bags was a little slow on time. I had a command staff of four people to troubleshoot. Immediately we reassigned and started coming up strategies for how do we deal with this and get things done. This is supposed to be a fun experience for students. How do you keep people excited and motivated to keep practicing the same task again and again and again to get the times down? How do you manage a team? How do you keep people on pace? How do you spread out the rewards, responsibility and authority?”

After all the strategizing, staged run-throughs and sweat-inducing assembly, no mission is truly complete without surprises.

“First wing in…wait this thing’s not built right,” was among the realizations as the team neared completion. “This one’s built backwards.”

“We need the mini-ship! Mini-ship! Where’s the mini-ship!?”

“Did anyone build it?” a question answered by a chorus of nervous laughter.

But in just 9 minutes and 13 seconds the LEGO Super Star Destroyer was ready for hyperspace.

With victory in hand, commanders Danny Smith and Tyler Duff explained how one piece flipped backwards nearly caused disaster.

“We’ve had that happen before and they’ve freaked out about it,” Smith said. “But they kept cool. It was one piece backwards so they flipped it when it needed to be flipped.”

“Those exact words are the reason they were over time last year,” Duff said. “A piece was built backwards. But, the issue this time was just one piece was flipped the wrong way. It took just a matter of seconds to switch that and luckily we were able to catch it before it caused any major problems. It probably took off just a total of two seconds. Everyone knew the build so well.”

“You can identify a mistake like that extremely quickly,” Smith continued. “It’s just a credit to how much practice we’ve done and hopefully we don’t have to do it again.”

Professor Miller says the real “A” is actually a “C.”

“One of the things that I love about what we’re doing is we’re building a community here,” Miller said. “I’ve been at 10 different institutions. Of all the places I’ve been, by far Williams is the best at bringing down boundaries between people. Between students, faculty, staff and community.”

And as for the group’s place in galactic history?

“It is technically a world record,” Miller said. “You have to pay Guinness several thousands of dollars to have someone come here. We’d rather buy more LEGOs for the kids.”

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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