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Debate Meccano and Lego

ICE newsConstruction toys are good fun to play with - but do they have any educational value?

This week we ask: Should civil engineering degree courses include a Meccano module to help students develop their construction knowledge?

Yes

David Davenport, senior civil project engineer, Ford Motor Company.

On 9 January 1901 Frank Hornby patented his idea for a construction toy, which he invented to amuse his children and based on metal strips punched with a series of holes. From this humble start Frank went on to create the Hornby empire which lasted to the end of the 20th century.

This empire reached around the globe to Australia and covered all corners of the British Empire.

In the early part of the 20th century Meccano was probably an influence in the lives of many young boys worldwide and, if you had enough parts, the limit of things to make was that of your own imagination. If it existed in real life then somebody would endeavour to make it in Meccano.

Regular competitions saw everything from synchromesh gearboxes to massive quarry excavators being made on the kitchen table. Meccano, and other toys that taught construction through play, featured large in many Christmas stockings well into the 1960s.

However, the past decade or so has seen a massive growth in electronics and children now seem to have abandoned games that taught them manual skills in favour of keyboard skills. This leads to conjecture that young engineering graduates may acquire good degrees but may lack some basic construction skills.

From this viewpoint it may be argued that a degree in construction should include greater practical experience. I have seen examples of shuttering design which cannot be removed after the concrete has been poured, and reinforcing bars that cannot be physically installed due to their shape. Such errors demonstrate a basic lack of understanding of the physical side of construction.

While a module in Meccano may appear to be a bit extreme the mere suggestion of it has prompted quite a number of responses in NCE. Can I conclude therefore that there are others who share a similar view?

No

Simon Bennett (G), UK Lego Users Group

I agree that construction toys should be used to teach structural principles, particularly as they allow trial and error and therefore learning through discovery rather than imitation.

However, although Meccano is a very good medium for modelling steel structures, I feel that Lego has significant advantages.

When I first encountered Meccano as a young child I found using nuts and bolts was much more fiddly than the snap together method of Lego. It also irritated me that on some Meccano models you had to bend the metal plates, and then bend the same ones back for different models so eventually they would split - although I suppose this is a useful lesson about fatigue cracking!

Today's students are more likely to have used Lego before, mostly because the complexity of design can increase as the child grows. Duplo is easy for infants but connects with System which then leads up to the advanced Technic range. Familiarity with building methods means that work can start sooner and experimentation is easier.

Lego has a history of supporting education. The Dacta educational theme includes teacher's packs and special parts like solar cells and capacitors. I would love to see a university level Dacta set and if the market was there I am sure Lego would produce one.

I believe the preference for Meccano is down to age. People who are over 30 either did not have Lego as children, or if they did, all they had was bricks. Lego has become more sophisticated, particularly since 1978 with the introduction of Technic, a range of mechanical elements including differentials, shock absorbers, pneumatic pumps and cylinders, and now the new robotics system Mindstorms.

I am a civil engineer because of Lego: it got me interested in building things and helped me understand structures. I think it can and should be used to do this for others.

The facts

Meccano and Lego have vast armies of fans around the world, dedicated to developing ever more sophisticated models.

An internet search reveals that there are more than 3,000 websites devoted to Meccano and a staggering 558,000 sites dedicated to Lego.

Lego has a tradition of providing schools and teachers with special kits to help children develop construction skills.

In the early days of Meccano, the manufacturer produced a monthly magazine which included details of major civil engineering projects as well as designs for new models (NCE 20/27 December 1990).

Opinion poll

Last week's debate asked: Is Railtrack right to continue increasing the number of steel sleepers in the network.A poll on NCE's website showed that:

17% said yes 55% said no 28% didn't know

If you want to vote on this week's debate go to nceplus. co. uk home page and scroll down to the bottom.

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