What toys inspired your civil engineering career?

Today, Jan. 28, marks National LEGO Day in the United States, which makes it something very close to a national holiday among civil engineers.

“Although I did not connect it to civil engineering at the time, I loved playing with LEGOs as a little kid. I especially loved the Harry Potter sets since it connected to my love of reading while still letting me build random creations for my mini-figures,” said Danielle Schroeder, EIT, A.M.ASCE, associate bridge engineer, Pennoni, in a discussion about the toys that inspired civil engineering careers on ASCE Collaborate.

She was not alone.

Clearly, not every child who enjoyed playing with LEGOs grew to become a civil engineer. But is it fair to say that every civil engineer was once a child who enjoyed playing with LEGOs?

Here are some highlights from the ASCE Collaborate discussion (and be sure to log in and contribute your own memories):

Daniel Taylor, P.E., M.ASCE

Project engineer, Ambler, Pennsylvania

Funny little story – in an elementary school yearbook, I said that when I grew up I wanted to be a LEGO master. My wife jokes that I kind of did just that by becoming a structural engineer.

Mitch Winkler, P.E., M.ASCE

Retired engineer, Houston

I was really into Tonka trucks when I was young. I had a dedicated dirt patch where I could move earth. I also had a lot of broken trucks from pushing them to their limits. I also learned practical hydraulic engineering at an early age building waterways and retention basins.

Three-year-old Danielle Schroeder playing with LEGOs, dreaming of her future career as a structural engineer. PHOTO: Danielle Schroeder

Jose Castro, A.M.ASCE

Water resources assistant engineer, San Diego

I absolutely love LEGOs! For me LEGOs didn’t directly inspire me to be a civil engineer, but they directed my avenue for engineering, creativity, and imagination. In elementary school I joined a LEGO robotics club using the Mindstorms branch of LEGO. Although not civil-based, it was still taking engineering concepts and procedure to accomplish a common goal for our team.

Even now, I have several of the LEGO Skyline Architecture sets around my cubicle at work to remind me to be creative and to have fun.

Julian Valencia, EIT, A.M.ASCE

Project engineer, Houston

I didn’t have LEGOs back in Colombia where I grew up, but there was a toy that did inspire me to become a civil engineer. It took me a while to find the name since I wasn’t sure if it had one plus what would be the right translation to English? The toy name is Etch-a-Sketch!

I remember spending a lot of time drawing, which I later discovered was drafting – other toys and I even remembered trying to re-draw the continents. I can’t remember if I ever finished that amazing task!

Heidi Wallace, EI, P.E., M.ASCE

Professional engineer, Tulsa, Oklahoma

I loved playing with the LEGO set we had at my grandparents’ house, and I still enjoy building with LEGO. My favorite, though, were the colored wooden blocks we had at home.

My sister and I both loved telling stories and making them come to life. She was largely in charge of character creation and dialogue. I was the director of the construction of the environment. She found suitable outfits for the Barbies to go with her theme, and I used our blocks and other supplies from around the house to make the roads and buildings.

After a while I would get bored with whatever the Barbie crew was doing for the day and wanted to go outside. (Once the building part was over it wasn’t of much interest to me.) My sister insisted that all narratives come to a logical conclusion. If I wanted to do something else, I had to find a way to end the story sooner.

One of the most memorable was when her Barbie convertible was going over my bridge. I kicked out the supporting structure and said, “Oh no, structural failure. They all fell in the river and can’t go to the ball now with wet dresses. Let’s go play outside.” I was around 9 years old at the time.

I didn’t really seriously think about being an engineer until high school. I decided on civil engineering my junior year of high school. Looking back over the story above and many others, it’s no surprise this is where my career has taken me.

Join the conversation on ASCE Collaborate.

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  1. I knew I wanted to be that person who designed Disneyland’s “World of Tomorrow” miniature model of a futuristic city! A young, 6 year old civil engineer was born!

  2. Prior to LEGOs, I loved playing with Lincoln Logs. It’s amazing how many times you can build a log cabin. After LEGOs, I loved playing with Erector Set. This took building to a new level. Of course my favorite children’s book was Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel. I still have these items and used them to inspire my two boys (neither an engineer). I plan to do the same with my future grandchildren (possible engineers).

    • Lincoln Logs and Erector Set were my favorite building toys. I was one of three boys, the only one to become an engineer, we spent hours each day when the weather wasn’t conducive to playing outside making various structures with those toys. When the weather was good we were scrounging up lumber, axles, wheels, and various building materials to build treehouses and go-carts.

  3. Fun topic. As a retired multi-discipline civil engineer, I’m feeling very introspective at this moment. It’s now occurring to me that I had toys that most little girls of the 50s & 60s didn’t have. I played endlessly with Kenner’s Hydrodynamic Building Set, their Bridge & Turnpike Set, and their Girder & Panel building set, plus Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, hand-me-down Tonka toys, and Grandfather’s slide rules and drafting tools. Even so, I never recall my parents encouraging me on any particular profession. Dad bought me a full tool kit for my 16th birthday when I earned my driver’s license. I think he would have been just as happy if I’d become an auto mechanic.

  4. My toys of choice were: Lincoln Logs, Erector Set and Lionel Trains. Spent endless hours with each and still have the Erector set and lots of trains.

  5. As a child my parents/grandparents indulged me with a host on construction toys starting with wooden blocks. I then moved on to plastic blocks a precursor to LEGO’s (~1953). I had Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and an ‘Erector Set”. My pride and joy was my Toy Train Layout (LIONEL) in the basement. For those of you in the Chicagoland area there is a Children’s Construction Toy Museum. I been there several times and know the owner/curator. Check out “Blocks to Bricks” by Adam Reed Tucker or go to : https://blockstobricks.com/ The museum is amazing!

  6. I had access to my brother’s Lincoln logs, tonka trucks and erector set. We had an incredible sand box that our father kept filled with sand he would bring home from construction sites. When I was 10, I presented him with a detailed drawing of how we could to dig the “batcave” into the basement wall. I had a very fulfilling career as a civil engineer specializing in transportation construction.

  7. I must be old. Mine was Tinker Toys. I loved building stuff with the different pieces.
    I also loved Spirograph. Great for visualization. Playing with Fractals?!?
    What I loved about the older sets, was the need for creativity. Too many of the newer set are just pieces with a recipe for a specific structure/item.

  8. I was well beyond childhood when Legos came out! I played with Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and alphabet blocks. In warm weather I played in the dirt (edge of the garden or barn lot while Dad and Grampy were milking) with farm toys, trucks, bulldozer, and loader. I grew up on a farm/ranch but eventually realized I was good with math and pictured civil engineering as a combination of moving dirt and using math. I decided on civil engineering my senior year in high school. I’m still working after 46-plus years (Marine Corps, consulting, Forest Service) and it’s been a great career. I do cowboy daywork at every opportunity, another childhood skill.

  9. I loved playing with the storm water flow, coming down the street next to the curb, during rainstorms. I’d build dams with sticks and watch them get torn away by the flow. I still enjoy playing in the gutter during storms!!

  10. My son told me that the Lego set we got him helped shape his decision. He is a biomedical engineer with an MD. He took his set from home when he was in med school!

  11. Lincoln logs and a basic set of wooden blocks were my inspiration. Tonka trucks excavating my parents garden (to their chagrin) was another. I would create highways with superelevation, bridges and tunnels out of mud. However, the most influential thing is becoming a civil engineer was reading David Macaulay’s book, “Underground”. The illustrations were so good, showing the utility and transport world below. That was in like 1st grade I think. Of course I read his entire series…and still have them, but Underground was the hook. I never looked back.

  12. Mine included Erector Sets, Kenner Girders and Panels, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Visable V-8, toy steam engine, radio kits, toy trains, and slot cars.

  13. While growing up through elementary and secondary school years I spent a lot of time playing in ditches building small dams, piped outlets, spillways, learning how to stop leaks, etc. But my decision to go into engineering came about through a statement of my high school biology teacher. All 10th grade students were required to take biology, and he was the only biology teacher at the high school. He was hunch-backed and absolutely no one was allowed to comment on his physical condition as he struggled to walk, and he always taught from a seated position. He and I used to eat lunch in his classroom. One day during my senior year he asked me what I wanted to do after graduation. My reply was to attend a college and major in forestry and wildlife management since I loved the outdoors. His response shocked me. He said that if I didn’t go into engineering and use my brain that he would kick me so hard that I would look like him. I was so impressed as to how he was willing to denigrate himself about his physical condition that I immediately sent off my application to the nearest engineering school (WVIT). I was accepted into the civil engineering program and never regretted my decision.

  14. Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, Girders & Panels, Model Railroading, Aurora HO Race Cars, 1/24 Slot Cars, Tonka Toys, visit to Roadside America, Plastic Models, Cox Gas Plane, kites, tennis ball cannons

  15. I don’t think you can overstate the effect the ‘Kenner Girder and Panel Building Set’ and their ‘Bridge and Turnpike Building Sets’ had on young kids. At one time in my small structural firm there were 3 engineers (plus one at another firm) who had the toy building sets as kids – the early 60’s. I believe AISC now has the rights to it. Personnaly, I had my older siblings’ sets of Plastic and wood blocks ‘Block City’? and the metal Erector Sets with electric motors.


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