CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 7. . . .October 17, 2014
Author Gerry Bailey uses the experiences of two fictional robots, RobbO and RobbEE, to introduce readers to the inclined plane, wedge, screw, lever, pulley and the wheel and axle system in Crabtree’s six volume series “The Robotx Get Help from Simple Machines”. Each book in the series begins with RobbO and RobbEE who are generally found trouble-shooting in a workshop filled with tools, acetylene tanks, and Rube-Goldberg like machines. Whether they’re attempting to put together pieces from an Meccano-like “Erector” set, deciding how to move into the workshop all of the parts they’ve collected to build a “whizz-fizz machine”, or lifting the engine out of a very old car, they find a way to make their work easier by using one of the six simple machines. Not surprisingly, it is often the slightly larger and perhaps older RobbO who helps his smaller friend.
Bailey’s decision to use two robots and Mike Spoor’s wonderful illustrations of RobbO and RobbEE take the emphasis off the physics (load force, effort or applied force, friction, and mechanical advantage) to focus more on the kinds of information such science books for young children should include: the use of a particular simple machine for a specific task and the identification of other tools that are commonly used to do something similar. As one example, in Splitting Apart: The Wedge, RobbO suggests that they attach two wedges to the front of their tractor to make a V-shaped plow for moving snow. Readers are then helped to know the difference between a single wedge and a double wedge before reading about RobbO and RobbEE using axes to split logs, a chisel to cut wood, and a knife to slice bread. Among other examples, Baily also informs his readers that their finger nails and front teeth are wedges as are the beaks and claws of birds and the teeth of zippers and saws.
Near the middle of each book, one of the robots, usually RobbO, tells a story that links the knowledge of simple machines to history and literature. Three of these stories involve Archimedes and one of his inventions that incorporates a lever, screw, or pulley system. Two stories are focused on the Greek myths of Sisyphus (see the fifth excerpt above) and the goddess Athena who turned Arachne into a spider because she bragged about the quality of her spinning.
The story told by RobbEE uses mischievous monkeys and a wedge in a log to relate the moral teaching “It’s not wise to poke your nose into other people’s business.” These are wonderful interludes because they are interdisciplinary and help children to think about the origin of simple machines many hundreds of years ago and their continued use today. As such, it’s unfortunate that the story of Archimedes and his compound pulley suggests that he “bragged that he could move the entire world.” One infers that he would use a pulley to do so. In actuality, it was a lever whose working he had mathematically explained. He is known to have said, “Give me a firm spot on which to stand, and I shall move the earth.” In the context of his deep understanding, I’m not convinced this is an example of bragging. It’s a comment on the lever as a simple machine in the hands of a human being.
Like other Crabtree series, “The Robotx Get Help from Simple Machines” includes a table of contents, glossary of terms, index, and a list of at least three books and three websites that readers can access for additional information. Editor of the series, Kathy Middleton, has also inserted stock photographs on pages where simple and compound simple machines are presented. Although not unusual in Crabtree books, I found it odd to see Spoor’s colourful cartoon-like drawings of RobbO or RobbEE superimposed on a photograph of a drill used in building tunnels and on a stock photograph of the pyramids of Giza that were constructed using ramps.
Unique to this series is a two-page spread near the end of each book titled “RobbO’s science workshop” where RobbO explains the simple machine the book is focused upon “to his friends”. These explanations are elementary scientific explanations that may not make sense to all six to eight-year-old readers. To understand what Bailey has written, children need to have opportunities to play with inclined planes, wedges, screws, levers, pulleys and wheel and axle systems and to become aware of the effort force needed to move or lift an object and how a simple machine can change this as well the direction of a push or pull, and the tradeoff between applied (input) force and the distance an object moves (see final excerpt above).
Barbara McMillan is a teacher educator and a professor of science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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