Montour Featured Stories

More Than a Hobby
For Young Learners and These Montour Administrators, LEGOs are Both a Learning Tool and Serious Business
By Mike Stancil

   Nearly everyone, it seems, has played with LEGOs at one point or another. The multi-colored blocks of seemingly endless shapes are a playroom staple. There has never been a question of the long-tenured toy’s entertainment value. It has enjoyed an expanding catalogue for 65 years.

   Recently, though, a new focus has involved this ubiquitous and simple plastic block in an educational renaissance. That revitalization is bringing new opportunity and ideas to the Montour School District.

   Jason Burik, assistant to the superintendent of Montour School District, started rediscovering the LEGO hobby when he was a teenager. Working from blueprints of his mother’s house, Burik built a LEGO replica and gave it to her as a gift. From then on, he’s been constructing various buildings and stadiums using anything he could get his hands on - blueprints, photographs, and sometimes his own memory.

   While attending college, Burik built a recreation of M&T Bank Stadium, home of the National Football League’s Baltimore Ravens team. As construction was beginning on PNC Park, he sent pictures of the model stadium to Pittsburgh Pirates ownership. Soon after, he was invited by the Pirates to give a presentation, and commissioned in 2001 to build a PNC Park replica.

   Measuring 28 inches long, 24 inches wide and 12 inches high, the Pittsburgh Pirates-commissioned PNC Park Model was a huge success. The project took him nearly three months to complete, and included approximately 3,600 blocks. In order to emulate the real stadium, Burik meticulously painted various pieces to ensure the look and details were accurate.

   That same year, Burik launched Burik Model Design, his LEGO model company, and began taking on more commissions, including a Malaysian hotel, houses, churches, and office buildings. One such commission came from Lawrence Hallier, a wealthy entrepreneur in Las Vegas, who asked Burik to create a four-foot tall replica of the Panorama Towers. It took Burik nearly five months to build, and cost $7,000 just to ship it from his Robinson Township home to Las Vegas.

   Though Burik’s models are all built out of what is marketed as a toys, the commissions are serious business.

   “[Hallier] flew me out and picked me up with a limo,” Burik recalls of the trip to Las Vegas. “They spared no expense.”

   According to a quote from Jim Alexander, director of ticket sales for the Pittsburgh Pirates, on Burik’s website,, the cost for his sizeable replica of PNC Park was $40,000 less than a standard architectural model. The savings, coupled with the novelty of the LEGO construction, made it a big success and a huge point of interest at Piratefest.

   Burik’s LEGO models led to additional contracts to create a replica of Zakk Wilde’s guitar, as well as logos for Dick’s Sporting Goods, the NBA and Google. He had the pleasure of meeting Cal Ripken, Jr. when he commissioned a replica of Cal Ripken Sr.’s Yard, a little league baseball facility.  

 An avid sports fan, Burik wants to build replicas of all the Major League Baseball stadiums, and thanks to a recent agreement, he’ll get his chance. He has partnered with Oyo Sportstoys, a LEGO-style brick company that specializes in sports themes. Oyo also owns the rights to all of the Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and NFL stadiums. In the coming years, Burik will design and build LEGO models of MLB stadiums for Oyo. The company will in turn use Burik’s prototypes to produce kits, which will be available for purchase. To date, Burik has completed 15 baseball, hockey and football stadiums.

   Across the country, hobbyists, organizations, and artists are utilizing the extensive color catalogue and seemingly infinite variation of LEGO block shapes. Online forums, specifically for trading or purchasing pieces, as well as enthusiast clubs, operate in many cities. In Pittsburgh, the adult enthusiast chapter is called the Steel City LUG, or LEGO Users Group.

   With the use of visualization, scale, planning and coordination, the leap to learning is not much of a stretch for the humble building block. Shortly after Christmas this past school year, Montour’s Burkett Elementary School opened its Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math - or STEAM - room. Paid for in part by a grant through the Grable Foundation, the room utilizes technology, the arts, and good old-fashioned LEGOs to help children develop a variety of classroom and life skills.

   An expanded version of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math - or STEM - disciplines being implemented by many school curriculums, STEAM aims to include the arts in order to offer a fully cohesive and encompassing experience. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the program is designed to “promote STEM education experiences that prioritize hands-on learning to increase student engagement, interest, and achievement in the STEM fields.”

   As part of the new, multifaceted approach to learning, Dr. Christopher Stone, director of curriculum and instruction at Montour, contacted the education branch of LEGO, with the help of Jason Burik, to aid them in setting up the program. A LEGO representative worked with Stone, Burik and Burkett Elementary Principal Candice Bostick to organize professional development for teachers associated with the STEAM room.

   According to the LEGO Education website, the company is approaching learning with an understanding that “[w]hile exam scores may continue to dominate education agendas, research shows that greater benefits can be leveraged by focusing on applying knowledge as a means to expand learning rather than acquiring knowledge in order to pass examinations.”

Jason Burik, assistant to the superintendent of Montour School District, with a model of PNC Park he was commissioned to create in 2001 by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Photo by Doug Hughey  LEGO A LEGO model of Heinz Field, constructed of Jason Burik. Photo by Doug Hughey   LEGO1 A LEGO model of Fenway Park, constructed of Jason Burik. Photo by Doug Hughey   LEGO2 Montour students work together with LEGOs in Burkett Elementary School’s new STEAM room to construct a narrative, which they also write on computers, thereby creating a cross-discipline exercise. Photo submitted.   LEGO3 Montour students work together with LEGOs in Burkett Elementary School’s new STEAM room to construct a narrative, which they also write on computers, thereby creating a cross-discipline exercise. Photo submitted.   LEGO4 lightbox text jqueryby v5.9

   The LEGO programs utilize several mediums to engage today’s technology-focused students through digital media and hands-on collaboration. The fundamental components of the system are applications, or games, that work with iPads, computers, and actual LEGO blocks. The integration allows students to collectively learn technology interaction while engaging their imagination and realizing their visions through the programs and blocks.

   Utilizing grant seed money from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Stone brought a LEGO representative to the school to install the system and train teachers. They were able to afford a large number of iPads, which aid in the use of the programs, and are a key component to the STEAM room.

   The idea of the STEAM room, Stone explains, is to engage students in a way that utilizes technology and their own creativity, and to use hands-on components to encourage teamwork and various language arts skills. LEGO had programs that met many of these aspirations.

   Of these, one of the more popular is LEGO Story Starters, a computer-aided system that allows students to develop a narrative, visualize it, and then create LEGO dioramas from scenes they have written. Students get to write, publish, and bring to life their own book. This system, designed to aid in the language arts, has become a student favorite.

   “[One student] told me that [her friends] are planning on creating a series of stories using legos and are going to go over to each other’s houses to make the next LEGO creation and story in the series.” Beth Hobbs, a Burkett Elementary teacher, wrote in an email to administrators. “All of my students loved this activity.”

   The LEGO programs work alongside other educational systems, like the school’s partnership with Project Lead the Way - a technology-based organization that develops curriculums to help educate students in core STEM disciplines. PLTW is currently helping to develop a hands-on robotics engineering program, adding to the depth of students’ experience with technology.

   So far, the program seems to be a success. As the school plans to move to a new building, Stone is looking forward to opening multiple STEAM rooms, and to better utilize the new and encompassing mediums of education.

   At Montour, LEGOs are more than just a growing hobby. They’re the building blocks to an exciting and colorful future.

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