By Graham K. Rogers
An important element of learning is play. We see this in the animal kingdom as well as with humans. While years ago children would learn with their parents, their siblings and alone, nowadays the emphasis is changing on input and digital devices are a significant factor. Simple Machines allows children to examine some basic mechanics by themselves.
People of my age would learn at home with toys and tasks that were quite basic in comparison with what is available today. Wooden blocks were changed for Meccano (U.S. - Erector Set), while girls had dolls houses and Barbie. I had some considerable enjoyment out of the tools and cast-off wood in my grandfather's workshop.
Children still learn at home, but many have access to the sophistication that devices like the iPad allow. The children (aged 4-8) of some of my friends, are quite happy to play for as long as they are allowed on their devices. They have access to several games with educational content.
I had these in mind, as well as some of my students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the university where I work, when I saw a new and featured app on the iTunes app store here. The full name of the app is Simple Machines by Tinybop, but on the iPhone it appears as Machines and in the featured panel of the iTunes App Store here it is shown as Simple Machines.
The app shows several mechanical processes, such as the lever and the screw allowing a child to discover how physical input can make a device work. Where this scores highly is its additional "X-Ray" display that shows input and output, thus aiding understanding of forces involved in a basic way. The app and other parts of the Tinybop package (see below) are designed to integrate with the STEM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)
Children and parents are asked to create accounts in the app, so that several children could share the app without impinging on another child's progress; and more than one parent (or other supervisor) could check on the children using the app. The initial login process is a little long-winded because of this and demonstrates the need for supervision, although once things are under way, the child should be left alone. It is not necessary to create an account for a supervisor in order for the app to be used.
There are 6 processes available in the basic $2.99 download, but the app is also part of a 4-app package - Tinybop Explorers - that covers the human body, plants and homes as well as the machines. That package is shown as $9.99 but when I checked on the App Store, it is currently shown as $7.00. The apps may each also be bought separately.
I began - and of course I played with this - with the basic lever.
- This requires input on one end of a pivoted spar. The other end is loaded with ammunition (looking like an egg). Depending on the input the load will hit various parts of a castle nearby. I was reminded to an extent of Angry Birds by this, especially as there was a bird in front of the castle. If I could make the egg hit the bird, it squawked.
Eventually, the castle is demolished and there are two surprises. The first is what is inside; the second is that the castle rebuilds itself and as the user tries harder to knock it down so reassembly is quicker: much fun on a basic level; but the key to learning here is the X-Ray view which shows the trajectory of the payload, which of course changes depending on the force of input.
- An unusual section showed three types of bicycles: penny-farthing, round wheeled, and square wheeled; there was also a scooter which needs different input instead of the rotation a bike needs - the fingers must emulate this. The sidebar to the right which displays input options is limited on the iPhone and not all are visible immediately. The X-Ray view shows where input and output forces are applied. Square wheels? No matter how hard one tries, the bicycle with square wheels will not move although smoke indicates the power is going somewhere.
- The ancient Greek, Archimedes understood (among other things) how a screw mechanism could be used to make work easier. In the app three fish tanks are placed above screws with different angled threads. A steep angle moves the tank up and down quickly, but needs more input. The fingers are moved vertically across the screen to make this work. The thread that is shallowest moves the tank up and down slowly and it takes more input to make it move, but this would move a greater mass with less effort.
As each tank reaches the top, so a door opens and a gift (food, toy) is dropped in, to the cheers of the fish. Again, the X-Ray input shows the learner clearly how the input is converted to output energy. The X-Ray fish are cute too.
- It was the screenshots of the pulley systems that had convinced me to download the app, but when I tried this, it was better than I had expected. A handle is turned to raise and lower an electromagnet used to lift items on a conveyor belt below. In the default (one pulley) configuration, raising the electromagnet is easy. However, when one of the items is attached, a single pulley is insufficient. Changing to one of the pulley options available to the left, works for some, but for the mini-Saturn or the satellite, more pulleys are required.
Lifting is of course slower the more pulleys that are used, but the weight that can be handled is increased. As the items reach a suitable height, they are released into orbit (or flight in the case of the bird). The X-Ray compares the input and output forces.
- The Inclined Plane was like an interstellar pin-ball game - that was part of my wasted youth - with launchers either side of a water-trap. The user is able to adjust the slopes of the planes and the position of the pins, so that the balls may be kept in play for a longer period (or not).
- The last demonstration available, The Wedge, used force to split what may have been a diamond or a large piece of ice. Wedges were of different angles, so it was easy to see which of the two (narrow angle or broad) was more effective.
I was taught some of these mechanical systems in Physics classes in the 1960s, but I already had a basic grasp of how each worked from discoveries through play. The way these machine functions demonstrate basic mechanical forces is both entertaining and educational.
I did most of the discovery on the iPhone which has an identical display to the larger screen of the iPads. Screenshots here are all from the iPhone. The app was still usable on the smaller device despite the different screen size. Although this would help any child (6-8 recommended by the developers), better learning would take place if the parent or supervisor worked along with the child, at least at the early stages of discovery.
Simple Machines by Tinybop is highly recommended.
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.