BBQ&A: Let’s build a Space Needle, Lego Style

By United Way of King County, on June 14, 2022 | In Events

Are you ready to emerge from the two-year COVID cocoon and have some fun? Get ready for a major event to kick off the summer of 2022: United Way of King County’s first Annual Community BBQ with Doug Baldwin! The event will be held rain or shine on June 18 at Renton Memorial Stadium from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. We’ve designed an outing for all ages that features tasty food, good music, family-friendly games and fun-filled surprises. The Annual Community BBQ offers a chance to gather with friends and make new ones. There’ll be something for everyone to enjoy!

Dozens of food vendors, performers, educators and entertainers have signed on to help make the BBQ a success. Here’s one: Play-Well TEKnologies, a California-based company that uses LEGO interlocking bricks to teach kids about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) via classes and camps. We sat down with Michael Spee, Play-Well TEKnologies’ Seattle-area program manager.

United Way: How and when did Play-Well TEKnologies get started?

Michael Spee: It started in 1997. Our founder, Tim Bowen, a former engineer, was just helping out with some after-school programs. They had some LEGO there and he realized what an incredible teaching tool it was. He started running more programs at different schools in the Bay Area. Eventually, he was able to hire more people to help him. Fast forward to 25 years and we are in 26 states, reaching hundreds of thousands of kids each year, introducing them to these concepts and helping them learn through play.

United Way: What are some subjects and topics you teach through LEGO?

Michael Spee: All of our programs are going to have that focus on STEM. We’re going to teach kids what it means to be an engineer, to make things work and make things work better. So, throughout the week of camp, we are always teaching them to modify their projects, complete different challenges, to find different ways to make that thing do what they want it to do. And sometimes they’re going to fail, and that’s part of it, learning from that failure, how to overcome that and create that final build that they want.

United Way: What is your background, and what led you to Play-Well?

Michael Spee: I had a long and circuitous route to Play-Well. I studied civil engineering in school, and I tried my hand in that world, but it wasn’t really a fan of engineering and consulting firm work. I found myself in musical theater, which had always been a passion of mine. I started doing that more, and I was looking for a side job, and I found Play-Well. That was about 15 years ago.

Michael Spee, Play-Well TEKnologies Seattle area program manager, holds a cash machine made from LEGO bricks. Note his cool LEGO bowtie.

It didn’t work out to work with them at the time, but I always kept them in the back of my mind. Fast forward to five years, and I was doing a [musical theater] show in the Seattle area, and they were loading out our stuff after doing an assembly. And someone was bringing bins of LEGO in. It was the same company. I eventually started working with them, teaching programs, working my way up from there, and I’ve been managing our programs here in the Seattle area for about four years.

United Way: What is it about LEGO that makes it such an enduring product for people of all ages? For most people, they likely see it for the first time as a toy, but it’s so much more than that. Why is that?

Michael Spee: Be careful calling LEGO a toy around certain people. It’s just the fact that the possibilities are endless. There are so many building systems and toys that you can put together in different ways. Just the sheer variety of parts and the way they are put together in so many different ways just leave open an incredible range of possibilities. Another thing is that it’s so well made; that helps, because all the parts go together very nicely.

LEGO has done an incredible job of creating this whole community and atmosphere of who they are and what they do. For Play-Well, with our programs, what makes it so valuable is the fact that it can be scaled up and down so easily, and you can introduce kids to so many different concepts.

United Way: You mentioned to be careful about calling it a toy to some people. Are there any dos and don’ts about LEGO?

Michael Spee: Well, you did it perfectly right there: LEGO is singular. You never say, “LEGOES.” That’s a big one. Don’ts includes calling it a toy as opposed to interlocking building system, depending on who you are talking to. There are various sanctioned and unsanctioned ways pieces can go together. It’s part of that whole community that has been created around LEGO.

LEGO is singular. You never say LEGOES.

Michael Spee, Play-Well TEKnologies’ Seattle-area program manager

United Way: Talk about what folks are going to do with LEGO at United Way’s Annual Community BBQ?

Michael Spee: On the day of the BBQ, we will have tons of bricks and other things for you to build the city of Seattle out of LEGO. We will be working together assembling our Space Needle; everyone will build sections of that Space Needle. We will top it with a [Seahawks] 12th Man flag. We will build other things to populate the city as well. We have ideas of different landmarks for people to work on. You can build a house or some other building and something to go with it. There are lots of different options of what you can contribute to that. And throughout the day, circle back to the table and see how the city is taking shape. By the end of the day, we will fill up that whole area with our version of the city of Seattle.


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