Ed Johnson remembers playing with Lego toys as a kid, making houses by snapping the little plastic blocks together.

Lego blocks and their influence on the imagination and science and technology have come a long way, not only for Johnson but also for the children he has coached in using the toy to inspire creativity.

For the past 11 years, Johnson, reliability supervisor for PPL Electric Utilities’ Central region, has coached a school program where youngsters age 9 to 14 use Lego robot sets to build moveable devices to accomplish a specific mission. Teams compete in regional, state and national tournaments.

Now that his Lego-competing son is moving on to high school, Johnson is retiring as coach of the Lego teams at St. Ambrose School in Schuylkill Haven. But he and his kids went out with a bang, with one of the two school teams reaching state-level competition for the third time in a row at Delaware State University.

Using sensors from the Lego kit, along with motors and a programmable control, the team developed a robot that was able to sense distance to objects as well as different color lines on the playing field. The robot then performed specific tasks to score points.

“I think from a students’ perspective, they’re playing,” Johnson said. “They don’t realize that they’re learning at the same time. As they develop those skills, it further develops their learning skills and turns them on to engineering, math and science.”

The team completed a research project in addition to building and programming the robot. The students developed a special set of cards for children with autism. The cards provide both visual and verbal cues to help autistic children learn valuable safety skills, such as how to recognize a walk sign at an intersection.

“The team went the extra mile and worked with occupational therapists and autistic children to get the best outcome for the project,” he said.

Johnson said he’ll miss working with the kids and watching their ideas and projects evolve.

“It’s great to see them learning and then seeing them move on,” he said. “Some have gone into engineering in college and for their careers.”

As the guy who keeps a close eye on the condition of the power lines and equipment that deliver power to thousands of people in Carbon, Columbia, Luzerne, Northumberland and Schuylkill counties, his teamwork with Lego sets will always help him on the job.

“Seeing how well you can get a team of kids to work together helps keep me focused on being a team player,” he said. “And it helps my work group become a cohesive team.”