The LEGO Master Builder Academy, Part One: In Which I Begin My Training

LEGO's Master Builder class teaches you to see those little blocks in a totally new way--though that's not easy

I'm getting my MBA.

Of course, MBA stands in this case for the Master Builder Academy, a program run by LEGO that's designed to take your LEGO-building abilities from playful amateur to impress-your-friends amazing. It's a six-part course, and I've worked my way through the first two parts. Already I'm seeing a major change in the way I think about LEGO. This is the first of a three-part series documenting my journey from neophyte to Master Builder.

We encounter plenty of people with awesome jobs pretty much every day at PopSci; the researchers who study 100-year-old brains in jars or the dudes who study tides in Loch Ness come to mind. It's hard to not be jealous and think "no fair, why can't I do that, too?" Often, though, there's decades of education between us and said awesomeness. The case of the LEGO Master Builder, however, is different. Sure, we'll probably never get paid to snap together a Death Star brick by brick, but a new series of kits from LEGO, The Master Builder Academy, can at the very least train us to build and think the way they do.

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"Master Builder" is an honorary title bestowed by LEGO on their best builders. These are official LEGO employees tasked with one of two general assignments. Some Master Builders build monstrous sculptures like the ones you see in LegoLand or the Times Square Toys 'R' Us. Others create the model kits and step-by-step instructions for customers.

Master Builder Academy won't make you a verified, LEGO-approved Master Builder; the idea is to teach the same fundamental building rules and design principles that the Master Builders use. The ultimate goal: to teach you to conceive and execute structurally sound, detailed builds that look like they're based off a kit. So what are those fundamental rules? I began studying at the temple of LEGO to find out.

Academy training consists of six kits. The first, "Space Designer," comes on its own for $30, and a bi-monthly subscription to the remaining five kits is an additional $60. Each kit comes with about 100 pieces, a guidebook, and instructions for three builds. At the end of each level, you take the new rules from that lesson and create your own model.

KIT ONE: TINY STUMBLING BLOCKS

I started my training about a month ago. I came in with very few preconceived notions and bad habits learned after years of freestyle building (and destroying) as a child. I, a LEGO neophyte, would seek to learn the ways of the Master Builders.

At first, it was ugly. On the first build ("Helicraft"), I had no rhythm and spent more time hunting for bricks than actually putting things together. It wasn't until I started tearing the model apart that I realized my fatal mistake: I hadn't taken the time to organize my bricks before the build, even though that advice is posted on the Master Builder Academy Website. After learning my lesson, I unsnapped wings, engines, and landing gear, and sorted the pieces by size in the provided partitioned tray.

Triumphant Minifig
Triumphant MinifigCorinne Iozzio

With that frustration set aside, I could focus on the lesson at hand: how to stabilize joints between bricks, and how to build outward instead of upward. Getting the hang of these tricks, though, wasn't about reading the tips in the building instructions. It was more like learning Spanish by just getting up and going to Spain: LEGO by immersion. Why do I need to build the wings and then attach them to the body instead of just snapping the pieces on bit by bit? Oh, because if they're not locked in place properly and well balanced, the whole thing will snap in half. I see... Why do I need to snap this extra plank on top of the landing gear? Whoops, it just fell off again, didn't it. Oh, I see...

Learning curve climbed. Bricks piled. Little LEGO pilot waiting on deck. Let's see if I can actually make an original aircraft happen. Graph paper at the ready, I started doodling an overhead view of some sort of space plane. Lo and behold, I knew exactly how to attach my engines, secure the wings, and hold the cockpit hinge in place. "I got this," I thought, "totally got this." And, shocked as my older brother may be, it worked. Even better, it stayed together.

It's a time-consuming process, for sure. In the day I sat my dining-room table to work my way through kit one alone, I looked up to see all the daylight has gone out of the room. Only serious builders need apply to the Master Builder Academy.

KIT TWO: I BECOME A MICROBUILD DESIGNER

It wasn't until I started prying apart layer after layer of a LEGO building in Kit Two that I got the hang of something I've now decided no LEGO aficionado should be without: a brick separator. Basically a crowbar for LEGO blocks, it's a plastic lever with a dual-faced end that can grip bricks from either the bottom or the top. Snap the appropriate face onto the brick you want to move and swing the end upward like you would a wine-key corkscrew. And, pop.

More importantly, the second kit is about getting your brain into a miniature mindset. It trains you to look at a round LEGO dot and see a wheel, the top of a stool, or a traffic sign. A clear block becomes a window, an antenna from your airplane in the first kit becomes a flagpole, and a rounded four-dot piece becomes a satellite dish.

The following kits hit all the LEGO core inspirations: robots, cars, airplanes, and monsters. By the end of the sixth and final kit, "Auto Designer," you should be able to design and build more or less anything. Yesterday, I embarked on Kit Three, "Robot Designer," in which you learn how to create joints and character details, as well as fashion creatures that can stand on their own. The name of the game this time is balance -- both artistic and physical; too much detail or flourish up top, and the whole thing comes crumbing down. Still at this point, I've learned to quell the frustration and uncertainty I felt a month ago, crack my knuckles, lean forward into what I call my "LEGO hunch," and say to myself "I got this..."

Stay tuned for Part Two of this series in a couple weeks. (It's hard, this becoming a Master Builder thing!)

Helicraft

Helicraft

It easily took an hour to construct this Helicraft. Not having securely snapped all the parts of the main cabin together very well made attaching the wings without crumbling the entire structure a daunting experience.Corinne Iozzio
Rocket

Rocket

When I first realized that this model was intended to stand upright on its rear fins, my initial reaction was "uh, yeah, sure." But the "locking" gospel Kit One preaches holds true; one carefully placed panel on either side holds the legs in place.Corinne Iozzio
Space Fighter

Space Fighter

Now, we’re getting the hang of this. And after building the right wing of this spacefighter, I was comfortable mirroring it on the left side without consulting the guidebook. Progress!Corinne Iozzio
My Intergalactic Creation

My Intergalactic Creation

All I knew when I started sketching this was that I wanted long wings for a stable flight and four guns: two near the cockpit and two on the wings. The guidebook suggested we ask ourselves questions like "is this a good guy or a bad guy?" The question felt pretty moot, given that the kit consisted of almost exclusively white bricks.Corinne Iozzio
Airport

Airport

The lesson here: buildings need windows, and transparent bricks do just the trick!Corinne Iozzio
Race Track

Race Track

It may not look it, but there's a ton of substructure under this track. The canopy is built on top of three layers of brick and anchored with two more.Corinne Iozzio
Astronaut Minifigure

Astronaut Minifigure

Cruel reality: LEGO provides the pieces necessary to make this guy a jetpack, but it won’t fit inside the cockpit with him.Corinne Iozzio
Space-Detective Minifigure

Space-Detective Minifigure

The models in Kit Two are small, so small that the minifigure du jour that comes with it is as tall as a radio tower. I guess that explains the magnifying glass.Corinne Iozzio