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PCS Edventures (Academy of Robotics reviewed, multiple kits offered)

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Review Synopsis: by science content expert Bernard Zubrowski

There is a great appeal to building models of devices, especially when some of them involve movement or some kind of interaction, and this set of materials does provide a great opportunity for students to gain a sense of how mechanisms function. Within the context of an afterschool or summer program, these would be attractive activities for some kids.
Full Review:
Using the PCS Edventures guides, students can construct mechanical devices using LEGO materials. Each guide has a theme, as suggested by their titles: Simple Machine Series, Gear Train Series, Power Train Series, Principles of Robots, and Application of Robots. There are connections between the activities under each theme, although this isn't made explicit.

Every construction activity is presented in three stages. First, students receive step-by-step directions with pictures showing how to assemble a device. Some devices involve eight steps while others require as many as 20. Afterwards, students answer a few simple questions, one of which is usually about terminology related to the function of the device. Users look up the explanation elsewhere and then redefine it in their own words.

Suggested "teaching times" for each activity vary from 15 minutes to 40. It's not clear whether this is time meant for the construction, or whether it also includes some discussion.

The second section of the program involves one or two open challenges, such as building a car with a mechanism from a previous activity. This section gives students little support. They are supposed to incorporate or change the previously constructed device into one they imagine is possible. The primary constraints for this part are the materials.

Finally, the third section consists of a completely open challenge in which the user is prompted to build anything that comes to their imagination as long as it incorporates the device assembled in the first activity.

These activities can be done as a group or by a motivated individual. In the introduction to each device, there is one page that suggests how an instructor should introduce the activity. This provides some context, and sometimes ideas about using an alternative set of materials that mimics the device to be constructed with the LEGO blocks.

A variety of mechanisms can be built out of just one book or the whole series; students can use the same basic LEGO set to construct all of these mechanisms (as well as ones the student invents). The materials are made of sturdy plastic and presumably perform as intended. By playing around with the LEGOs, the user can get a sense of how each of the different mechanisms functions.

I did note a few weaknesses in this set of materials. The initial investment is costly, and though many of the programs appeal to boys, I wonder how appealing they are to girls.

Also, although the program refers to the national standards for technology and science, these standards are not fully addressed either in the written guide or the activities. A great deal of research suggests that there is a need to spend more time discussing each activity and focusing on a few concepts in order for students to develop deep understandings of the science or technology associated with each mechanism. The teacher's guides have limited support to make this happen, both in terms of the number of suggestions they give and the pedagogical approach they take.

In addition, the transition from an explicit set of instructions for building something to a completely open challenge could be a problem for some students.

The assembly of the different devices in this series might take on more meaning if students started out with a set of more open activities that would let them use simple, easily-altered materials (like cardboard and wood). More flexible materials might give students a chance to try out designs which are less possible with the LEGO blocks. In some places in the guides, something like this is suggested—but as a demonstration rather than an extended design experience.

Note on the Series

Bear in mind that the guides described above really only deal with mechanical devices. This does gives a sense of what mechanical engineering could be about; however, this is only one domain of technology and engineering. Activities that involve investigations and constructions around electrical devices (electrical engineering), structures (civil engineering) or flying models (aeronautical engineering) were not reviewed, but are also available. In addition (in case you have a big investment in that other construction toy) some guides from the same company use K'NEX rather than LEGO.