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Gears without the grind

LEGO Dacta Minisets, Gears (set 9610); Levers (set 9612); Pulleys (set 9614) Pounds 100 each.

Pounds 270 if all three sets purchased. Starter pack with teacher's guides Pounds 120. NES Arnold, 17, Ludlow Hill Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 6HD.Tel: 0602 452200

Lego has gone a long way towards removing some of the mysteries of mechanisms for key stage 2 and upper primary pupils and perhaps some non-specialist teachers, with its new Dacta Minisets.

The finely-engineered gears and components of these kits allow children to try out design ideas for mechanical systems, and free early-evening workshops are available to introduce teachers to the principles involved and how the sets may be used in class.

Each pack contains eight identical sets and building instructions for two simple models, along with an A4 teaching guide introducing the basic concepts of the mechanisms involved, together with detailed lesson plans for four sessions. A starter pack can also be purchased which contains three levers, three gears, and three pulleys minisets, complete with teachers' guides.

The sets are attractively packaged and come in a sturdy red plastic carrying box. The limited range of pieces in each set and the clear step-by-step pictorial instruction cards which accompany them, make them especially suited for children's first experience of using Lego Technic.

The miniset boxes themselves are divided into sections by a clear plastic insert with an underlay which shows exactly which parts should be there. This will prove useful for keeping check on the small parts included, a perennial problem with construction kit pieces.

The teachers' guides are clear and well set out, making a good introduction to basic mechanisms. In the first of the four sessions pupils are introduced through simple games to the correct names for the parts in the sets and the basic principles being studied. The second and third sessions focus on the two models covered by the building cards in the sets. There are suggestions for modifications of the models and the main teaching points are stated clearly and simply.

I particularly like the addition of photocopiable card sections to enhance and extend the models. These may encourage staff to explore the possibilities of interfacing the kits with other materials. This is the first instance I can recall where non-Lego components have been included in their sets, but hopefully it will encourage a greater flexibility in their use.

One of the major strengths of a kit like this is that it rapidly allows children to try out design ideas for mechanical systems, and the components can be relied on to connect positively. These mechanisms may then be used to operate models made from other media or the mechanical ideas may be realised using other materials.

The gears set details models for a fairground roundaboutpicture spinner and a fancolour spinner. The one for levers offers a Welsh dragonextending gripper and a weighing machinestamper, and the pulleys kit provides models for a rotating sign and a crane.

The last session in each kit is devoted to a challenge which may be used to assess children's capability and understanding of the mechanical principles involved. Suggestions are given for possible solutions so that children (or teachers) who are struggling for ideas need have no worries.

There is a glossary at the end of each guide, explaining the main technical terminology used together with a sheet which can be used for simple mathematical calculations. The detailed lesson notes will be a boon to the non-specialist teacher as the area of mechanisms is one which traditionally causes concern. So too will the free one-and-three-quarter-hour workshop sessions which Lego is putting on. The one I attended was well organised, informative and served as a good introduction to the sets without undue sales pressure. Useful tips were given on the management of the resources which unfortunately do not seem to appear in the teachers' guides.

All in all, I was most impressed. Although initially an expensive resource, Lego minisets are good value for money, and for schools with close neighbours they would make an ideal shared resource.

For information on workshops, contact Gill Davies, LEGO Dacta, Ruthin Road, Wrexham, Clwyd, LL13 7TQ, tel: 0978 296230

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