Constructing California

Recent graduate Chris Zaleski is assembling a topographical Lego map of California. (Gregory Urquiaga/ UC Davis)
Recent graduate Chris Zaleski is assembling a topographical Lego map of California. (Gregory Urquiaga/ UC Davis)

Picnic Day features a topographical Lego map of California

Lego lovers, UC Davis Picnic Day has a display made just for you.

It’s the state of California, a topographical map built to-scale, meticulously constructed of 32,000 Lego bricks. The model sits on an 8-foot by 4-foot plywood display board, and took hundreds of hours to assemble. Brick colors reflect types of land use—for example, red indicates urban areas, blue is water, dark green is forest, brown is for agricultural lands, and there’s even a custom-made Lego flag that says “UC Davis Aggies” perched on just the right dot. The tallest point, Mount Whitney, is 26 Lego bricks high.

“Moving it is the hardest part,” said recent graduate Chris Zaleski, who took on the task of building the map as an intern for the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources (LAWR). “It takes at least three strong people, and you have to tilt it sideways to get it through the door.”

Zaleski majored in environmental science and management, and his interest is watershed science. He recently began a new job with the Solano County Water Agency. He first became involved with the model-making as a student when LAWR staffer Pia van Benthem inquired whether he had any experience building with Legos. Zaleski—a native of San Diego who attended Legoland on opening day and whose family had season passes to the park for several years—replied “yes.” People who build Lego models on this scale don’t waste words.

This is the third jumbo Lego map of the state of California that LAWR has built. In 2014, the first model was the product of Professor Ian Faloona’s atmospheric science students and others in environmental science. They combined it with a fog machine and fan to demonstrate coastal fog and its penetration inland throughout the state. The map debuted at the San Francisco Exploratorium in the fall to help promote the new undergraduate major in Marine and Coastal Science at UC Davis and returned to the museum in 2015 for a donor event.

The latest version, highlighting land-use in the state, is funded by the California Space Grant Consortium and CaliforniaView, both supporters of remote sensing science. Remote sensors help researchers understand the environment by scanning the earth from satellites, airplanes and drones, taking measurements on a scale that can’t be captured by the human eye. LAWR Professor Susan Ustin, an expert in remote sensing, hopes that this year’s Lego model of California will help viewers see how the state’s topography influences land use. “This should visually explain to people why California has such varied ecology and is so rich in biodiversity,” said Ustin.

On Picnic Day, people can view the California Lego model in the courtyard between Veihmeyer Hall and the Plant and Environmental Sciences Building. The demonstration will include a fog machine and a fan, blowing fog along the Lego coast.

Lego builder Zaleski has helped make all three models of California produced by LAWR, and he’s learned a lot since the first year when he and fellow students soon realized, “we’re going to need a bunch more bricks.” This is the first year he’s built the map alone, beginning in January.

After Picnic Day, the Lego map of the state will go on display at various science museums in California. LAWR staffer van Benthem is still working out arrangements, but she is in discussion with the Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences, and Legoland. Previous models from Picnic Day have eventually been dismantled, but this year’s model is a keeper that will be encased in Plexiglas and eventually returned to UC Davis for display.

Come check out all 32,000 bricks of California at Picnic Day on Saturday, April 22. For event details including the schedule of events, parade marshals and more, visit the Picnic Day website.