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Three types including the Forth

. . . bridges that is. Jon O'Connor finds plenty to delight in a practical kit that spans the essentials of bridge construction

TTS Bridge Kit. Pounds 37.95 plus VAT and postage. Tritech System Book on Bridges. Pounds 9.85 plus postage. Primary Checkcard Investigations Book. Pounds 20.50 plus postage. Age range: 5-11

The key stage 1 technology guidelines in the national curriculum demand opportunities for "activities in which children investigate, disassemble and evaluate simple products". This sounds simple when you're talking about a washing up bottle, but try doing it with a house - or a bridge, for that matter. Well now you can, because TTS has produced a super little box of tricks - no bricks, just bridges.

The kit contains all sorts of bridges, complete with arches, beams, trusses, abutments and all necessary connecting roadways. It's wonderful. This kit has great potential across key stages 1 and 2 and would probably do a bit of good after that, too.

There are basically three types of bridge. There's the beam bridge, originally created by a tree falling across a stream, apparently. This developed over the years into the celebrated stone clapper bridge and the forerunner of modern motorway bridges. Then there's the classic arch bridge, as used by the Romans, and many that marched a thousand years before. You have to concentrate on the voussoirs - the wedge pieces that hold the whole thing together. Finally, there's the suspension bridge - no mystery about that - go Forth, young man and cross the Severn.

All this rapidly gleaned engineering talk comes from the lovely, lucid teacher's notes. They give just the right amount of initial background information with clear drawings and instructions. Obvious, but necessary safety advice is included.

There are also some simple ideas for using additional materials, such as artstraws, plaster of paris and checkcards for investigations into each type of bridge. If you want to get into the subject seriously, TTS recommends the Tritech System Book on Bridges or the Primary Checkcard Investigations book.

Andrew Dunn's book Bridges, published by Wayland, is included in the pack. This shows a fine selection of designs and gives a good flavour of bridge history.

The kit makes a super stand-alone topic, investigation or support pack for geographical studies. But the best bit, of course, is the bridges themselves. The box contains a model sample of four designs for reconstructing, with notes to help understand the key design features and the physical principles in simple terms.

The components are a mixture of plastic, timber, nylon cord and MDF, all preshaped for easy construction, but avoiding a spoon-fed system. The simple beam bridge goes together easily, but a degree of care and good spatial awareness are needed in making the other models. Once constructed, there is scope for a range of investigations into the bridges' innate strength, the forces acting upon different sections of the bridge and the relative merits and applications.

The activity involved in construction invites pupils to observe, understand and record carefully all of these aspects of bridge engineering. The range of material is sufficient for an average-size primary group to use in groups, especially as the tasks lend themselves well to partnerships and teamwork.

The relevance of the technology is immediate - pupil comments on local bridges show how little they notice until such an opportunity to analyse construction is provided. With the experience gained, comes the opportunity to bring a little more life to the topical interest of repainting the Forth bridge and the more general issues that bridges raise.

In a world where people may one day travel only by virtual reality, looking at the evolution of bridges as a means to explore, travel and control territory is enjoyable and relevant.

Technology Teaching Systems, Alfreton, Derbyshire, DE55 7RL. Tel: 01773 830255

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