Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978

Structural Engineering: Bridges & Skyscrapers

Structural Engineering: Bridges & Skyscrapers

Fall 2017 Toys
Ages: 8 & Up
Manufacturer: Thames & Kosmos
Price: $49.95

Structural design is a complicated process that has challenged great minds for millennia and led to some of the greatest and most timeless work of humanity. In the Thames & Kosmos Structural Engineering: Bridges & Skyscrapers kit, young engineers have an opportunity to examine the elements of buildings and structures—and to consider what works, what doesn't, and why.

Though the kit contains many model designs that can be built in any order, by far the best approach to this set is to work through the manual from beginning to end. Using modular pieces compatible with other Thames & Kosmos engineering kits, kids start by making simple shapes (squares and triangles) and considering their stability, expanding them into trusses that can be turned into a minimal house frame that can support (we discovered through trials) even an extremely heavy textbook. Within the first unit the book describes vectors, forces, moments, and Newton's laws of motion -- always motivating discussion by first allowing kids to try designs out for themselves and go through a range of tests.

After the house construction, the manual moves onto bridges and skyscrapers, working through beams, columns, arches, plates, and cables. At every stage, there is a basic build, some simple (and fun) tests, (it turns out even a flimsy beam bridge could hold more than we expected, but not nearly as much as a suspension bridge) a discussion of the physical concepts, more elaborate designs, and a challenge to go beyond the designs in the book to build something taller, wider, or stronger. For once, we genuinely had no remorse about dismantling models at the end of a step, because we found that each design was more intriguing than the last.

The manual is well-written and the diagrams carefully annotated and referenced back to the parts list, allowing kids to focus on the science and the construction without getting distracted or frustrated. The book had us asking even more questions and seeking out more sources for information about structural engineering successes and failures.

This surprisingly reasonably-priced kit generates more thought and more enthusiastic design and play time than many elaborate electronic sets costing four times as much. Children (and their parents, too!) can look forward to many hours of play and learning.

Emily Crawford   ©2017 Parents' Choice
Emily holds a BSE in electrical engineering and computer science from Duke University and a Master's in computer engineering from Georgia Tech. She is a homeschooling parent and lives with her husband, three children, five cats, and thousands of LEGOs in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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