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Unit Beams: Bringing STEM home, but not without some growing pains

Start their engineering dreams early.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education is a major force in 21st century teaching and learning.  Students from kindergarten through high school find STEM projects integrated into significant portions of their school day, regardless of the class subject.  

Unit Bricks, a company founded by Timothy Stuart, has released a brand-new line of products, differing greatly from their original wooden brick design. These Unit Beam sets are a major step toward turning simple STEM play into true design and construction.  While the designs of the new sets are certainly unique, there are some growing pains in expanding the brand into new territory.

Unit Beams are durable plastic pieces designed to resemble I-beams, trusses, and struts.  The individual pieces all snap together and can slide into place, creating more stable structures.  With an eye towards STEM design, the sets come with pseudo-structural engineering drawings depicting the several steps of construction and the pieces needed for each set.  

The two currently available sets — Bridge and Crane — each come with more parts (MANY more in the bridge set) than are needed for the initial construction. Unit Bricks encourages users to first build the set indicated in the drawings, then discover for themselves how to build the additional set pictured on the box, and finally, design new structures for themselves.  

The pieces are well made and durable and are based on a standard, well, unit. Each standard unit is 2.5″ long, with other pieces described as “double unit,” “half unit,” and “quarter unit.” This allows for consistency of design, while also giving a more structured and STEM-oriented nomenclature than the “4-stud” of more well-known building sets.

My third grade son and I built both the Crane and the Bridge, using the drawings as our guide.  (I discovered that Unit Bricks has released an app with AR instructions for building with their Unit Brick set, but no Beam instructions were available.)  The set is rated for ages 6+, which I must assume has more to do with the contents of the box rather than the actual construction. Without adult assistance to read the drawings, I’m positive my 9-year-old would have been forced to give up early in the process.

Speaking of the drawings: I hesitate to call them “instructions,” because they give very little detailed instruction, favoring several accurate drawings of major pieces without the clear step-by-step seen in LEGO or Ikea furniture. I, personally, am an Emmett and adore detailed instruction.  My son is more of a WyldStyle and enjoys inventing new things for himself, so not having detail did not frustrate him as much as it did me. While I understand the desire for play to be mixed with design and creativity, sometimes just figuring out how the pieces go together can be a huge challenge with only a solid drawing to go by.

It’s difficult not to compare Unit Bricks to the blocky elephant in the room, LEGO. Those things are ubiquitous, including in my living room. They’re what both my son and I have grown up with (so far), and the Unit Bricks’ construction process can be frustrating to those expecting exact snaps-together precision.  

While some connectors and beams snap together well and stay tight even when slid into place, others slide around or even fall out, creating an unstable environment for the really large constructions. Moving the crane and bridge from the middle of our floor to under the tree and out of the way caused both to come apart in multiple places, frustrating all of us as we considered whether or not we would spend the time to rebuild them or try something new.

Another concern for both home and educational use is certainly the price. The Bridge set comes with 620 pieces and the crane with 178. For the average LEGO price (sans licensing increase), these sets would retail for around $80 together. The Bridge set retails for $129.99 and the Crane for $49.99. These are certainly not deal breakers and the pieces themselves are much larger than LEGO. Not having 100 tiny 1-stud bits floating around is a definite plus.  

After we finished the bridge — a huge build at 3 feet long and 2 feet high — I asked my son what he thought.  He shared that he really enjoyed figuring out how the pieces went together from the drawings and that we had to make discoveries for ourselves.  When I asked if we were going to tear down the bridge and build the next one just from the picture on the box, his eyes lit up with an enthusiastic, “Definitely!”  

I’m glad my son got the chance to play with Unit Beams and was kind enough to hold his poor, non-engineer dad’s hand through the process. For the STEM kid in your life or the engineering classroom, Unit Beams — with a few consistency fixes and maybe some more detailed plans — can be a great addition to active building.

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