A Fleet Made of Bricks
A former naval architect uses Legos to get kids excited about STEM
Wilbert McKinley has always had an interest in ships. Growing up on the East coast, he was fascinated by every vessel that caught his gaze.
From there, he began drawing his own ships.
"I'd started drawing ships when I was 14," he said. "Just from going to the library and looking at the periodicals, I'd developed a portfolio of ship designs."
At 18, McKinley submitted work to some maritime engineering companies and got his first break with a well-known company that designed the Spruance-class of destroyers. McKinley would spend the next 30 years designing different types of ships, leaving his mark on the fleet.
Many Sailors have seen at least one example of McKinley's work in the tie-down patterns on the flight deck of Wasp class amphibious assault ships. He was also one of the lead designers on the Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer.
Retirement from the warship business didn't slow McKinley down. He still designs ships but now he also builds them. His materials of choice are colorful pieces that snap together, known to most people as Lego bricks.
He began building the ships as a way to get kids interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). He's now constructed more than 150 model ships that make up his Teach Fleet where McKinley is affectionately known to his students and parents as "the Commodore".
"The other thing that we do that's really unique is we tie in the history [and] the biographies."
McKinley takes STEM a step further by naming his vessels after prominent women and minorities who made significant contributions to STEM and maritime fields. He has a ship named for Adm. Michelle Howard, the first female four-star in the Navy, Maj. Gen. Hugh Robinson, the first black general in the Army Corps of Engineers and Adm. Paul Reason, the Navy's first black four-star. The ships are displayed with the biography of their namesakes.
"[It's] for little girls and little boys to say 'I can be an admiral when I grow up; I can be a general; I can be a pilot!'...It's really getting kids to believe in themselves; that this is something they can do."
Although none of the ships in the fleet are exact replicas, McKinley says there are more similarities than differences in the style and construction of his ships compared to the real thing.
"Building a ship out of Legos, is actually how modern ships are built today; it's modular construction," said McKinley. "When I was one of the lead designers on the Arleigh Burke class, we started out with units and then the units went together as modules, and then when the modules were finished, they were all joined together."
McKinley takes his models on the road to educational events, museums, science fairs or anywhere there are kids thirsty for knowledge. He says he's motivated by the energy of the kids.
"As soon as the kids came through the door and looked across the museum and saw the exhibit you could see them pointing. Some of them were just jumping up and down," he beamed. "The reason that I use the Lego models is because it creates so much excitement with the kids, particularly the younger kids."
For McKinley, the journey of his Teach Fleet is a momentous personal accomplishment for him. Working in shipbuilding, McKinley had a colleague who built scale replicas of the ships the company designed. Knowing how meticulous those models were, McKinley admired the work, but he never thought he could do it.
"40 years ago I never thought I'd really ever be able to build ships," said McKinley. "The medium of working with Legos turns out to be perfect for me."
It's the lesson he teaches his students; they can do anything they set their minds to.
"I'm just here to show them that it's possible," said McKinley.