Building with Burrell: Life and LEGOs

By Jacob Hill.

“Throw the instructions away” – Mr. Burrell

Mr. Burrell has been a science teacher at Heritage Academy for well over a decade. His experience with LEGOs, however, stretches back much further. Here is an interview with Mr. Burrell about his life and his lifelong passion for LEGOs.

How long have you been playing/building with LEGOs?

Burrell: Since I was about seven or eight, so about 40 years. Yeah, around 42-43 years. I had one of the first sets that had figures in it. When they first made the LEGO set that had—they weren’t minifigures, they were actually kinda large—it was the first time they had made people that weren’t just blocks with a round yellow head.

How many LEGOs/LEGO sets do you have?

One time, years ago, I actually counted all the way up to 10,000, and there’s more than that now. I tried to just count what the box count was and everything, but then I remembered I had bought some at garage sales. One time I bought a milk bucket two-thirds full of LEGOs; I don’t know how much was in that. I would estimate, though, from how big the 10,000 were, that I have an excess of 20,000. I don’t think I have 60,000, but somewhere in that range.

How often do you attend LEGO events (conventions, contests, etc.)?

Not as often as I want. There’s a club in Arizona that meets monthly—I would love to go to those. I probably see one or two things a year—and I used to go to the LEGO Store every birthday and every Christmas. My birthday’s in June, so every about six months I’d visit the LEGO Store in Chandler, but I missed my last visit. Whenever one comes to town and gets advertised very big I try to go see it. Like when Ninjago Movie was released, at the Tempe Marketplace, they had a building reserved, and they did a whole big diorama of Ninjago LEGO sets and stuff, so I went to go see that. I see something like that about once every couple of years, those huge dioramas and things. If I could afford to visit LEGOLAND every year I probably would. They have an ambassadorship [and] you can buy a membership for life, but it’s expensive. You can buy a pass to LEGOLAND for life. When they first opened, it cost $1,000, [but] I’m sure it costs more now.

Have you ever met any famous LEGO Master Builders or artists?

I have. A few years back they (LEGO themselves) had a tour across the country that stopped here in Phoenix, and they had two Master Builders there, and I shook hands with and took pictures with one of them. I have a picture of him on Facebook…I can’t remember his name, but he was really cool, though. I talked to him about some things and I said, “I’ve tried to do this, I teach Physics” and he was like, “Oh really?” and we really talked shop for just a couple minutes, but it was neat. He was a nice guy, really smart, very lateral thinking. You know what I mean by that? He could think coherent sentences and everything, but he could think sideways really quickly. And it was kinda cool. That’s why he makes a good Master Builder because he’s young enough to still experience new things, but he can look at a round object and make it out of squares and still see it and know what he’s doing, and have enough imagination to tell little kids about it. So they can think of spaceships and monsters and he’s talking about rectangular bricks, which is really a Calculus problem. In Calculus, you learn how to approximate a curve with rectangles and trapezoids. And that’s how the LEGO curves are all made.

What is the biggest/most complicated thing you’ve ever built out of LEGOs?

Most complicated…I made a wave, like a water wave. It had gone up like this (looks like a breaking wave), it was frozen in space, and it was really hard because of the curving. I kinda did like a hands-on Calculus problem, but I made it curl up so it looked like it was splashing. That was pretty complicated, it was hard. Probably the most pieces I’ve assembled together was when I built a theater. It’s like a two or three story, Palace Theater it’s called. It looks like the old Chinese theater in Hollywood, but it’s just a LEGO kit. That’s probably my most complicated LEGO build with instructions. Hardest thing I made from scratch was a Ferris wheel, and I made the Ferris wheel with a few plans, but I kinda had to extrapolate. It was about this big (roughly two feet tall), and then I wanted to teach a math lesson about sin waves, and everybody says the height of the Ferris wheel with time is a sin curve. So I motorized my Ferris wheel so that it didn’t only turn, it actually rolled across the table while it turned. I put a marker inside the Ferris wheel that drew a graph on the wall. So that’s probably the, without instructions, probably the coolest thing that I was able to make myself. A Ferris wheel sin graph maker.

What is your favorite set/creation?

Favorite thing ever? That’s like asking me favorite ice cream, ‘cause it changes every time they come out with a new one probably. But I had a lot of fun with the Scooby Doo sets. I got the big mansion and the Mystery Machine, so it really looked like a whole Scooby Doo episode because I had all the characters and the car. That was pretty neat, I really really enjoyed that. When we built the pod racers from Star Wars Episode I, those were really cool. They had some really unique uses of some very weird pieces, and some very normal pieces, so that was pretty neat. Favorite set ever? When I was a little kid, I got a set that was a bull and a trailer and a farmer. It was the one with the first figure, and I played with that set so many different ways because there was a trailer hitch with a ball-and-socket joint, and I figured out so many different things I could do with that. That was one of my favorites.

What advice do you have for aspiring LEGO builders?

Aspiring LEGO builders? I learned a tip that if you want to buy a bunch of weird pieces you can use and make in your own stuff, then wait for things to go on clearance–like, those Brickheadz sets that make a little bobble head out of LEGOs. I think those are ugly, and I didn’t even bother looking at them for a couple years. But then I realized that if you bought those on clearance, you’ve got a bunch of really weird shaped bricks that you could dump into the pile and make something really neat out of. So sometimes if there’s a set on sale that you don’t really care for the motif, but you plan on building your own stuff later, buy that on sale so you’ve got all those weird pieces. And then throw the instructions away. Build it once, take it apart, put the instructions somewhere else, and see what else you can do with them.

Like any art form, don’t let anybody else tell you your structure’s bad, because it is what you think it is. And one of the reasons I keep doing it is because I’m only limited by my imagination, and I’m always building. That seems like a good life statement. I’m always building. A–I’m never finished, but B–I’m always improving. So, there’s that, I guess.

Mr. Burrell’s love of LEGOs has become a focal point of his character. It has bled through into how he teaches his classes, how he has fun, and how he lives life in general. Not only does he think it fun, challenging, and engaging, but he also finds a lot of meaning that he applies to his daily life. Thanks to the he lessons he has learned, he has been able to benefit his own life as well as the lives of those around him. And he does this all with tiny, plastic, colorful bricks.

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