Students use K'Nex to display engineering skills

| Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010

Pleasant Hills Middle School sixth-grader Bret Barkley has high hopes for his K'Nex design.

“They could use this design for a bridge one day,” he said excitedly.

Bret was one of approximately 150 students in grades 4-8 from 28 school districts and two charter schools to take part in the K'Nex Challenge Monday morning hosted by Allegheny Intermediate Unit at its Homestead central office.

The children used K'Nex construction sets to build a device to move a ping pong ball across a flat surface.

“It's an engineering competition,” said Amy Cribbs, exploration and academic events coordinator for the AIU. “They use science principles, math and a lot of creativity. They have to work in groups of four. They've been working on this in the classroom since October.”

Students had two hours to build their structure and then presented it to the judges, who were representatives from Thermo Fisher Scientific, PPG and Vere Industries.

“K'Nex said this is the first time something like this has been done in the U.S.,” Cribbs said.

In October, K'Nex education consultant Bob Jesberg taught a workshop for teachers on how to use K'Nex in the classroom. The teachers went back to the classroom to come up with an idea with their students, write a narrative on their process, and describe how students worked as a team to come up with it and created a blueprint.

“It's a wonderful opportunity for kids from multiple school districts to compete in a fun, creative educational activity,” Jesberg said.

He said while he has seen college and grade school level groups build bridges, he'd never experienced anything to this extent.

“I can see a lot more than bridges,” Jesberg said. “It's a full gamut of engineering and mechanical systems.”

“We built a ramp for the ball to slide,” Propel Homestead seventh-grader Cameron Woodbury said.

The students called their design Ramp of Resnick after Propel Homestead founder Jeremy Resnick.

“He represents our school,” seventh-grader Essence Bowers explained.

In addition to Cameron and Essence, seventh-grader Micah Goodman and eighth-grader Emanule Cargile were the other Propel Homestead Discovery Aces gifted program students on the team with teacher Kelly Britcher.

“It's kind of complicated,” Micah said. “It challenges you.”

“The school districts really embraced it,” Cribbs said.

“Many of them already use K'Nex in the classroom. It's such a great tool to have to work together as a team using engineering principles and having fun.”

She said she came up with the concept because she has always loved K'Nex.

“K'Nex are made right here in Pennsylvania,” Cribbs said.

“You get to express yourself,” Pleasant Hills Middle School sixth-grader Adam Briggs said.

“It's K'Nex. You get to have fun with it. You can build almost anything. The possibilities are endless.”

Janice Campbell, marketing operation manager from Thermo Fisher Scientific, was one of the judges.

She said they were looking to make sure just K'Nex pieces were being used, asking students if the blueprint helped them come up with the design, ensuring all students were working and evaluating their creativity.

Jill Jones, category manager for educational products for Thermo Fisher Scientific, said this is a great opportunity for students.

“(Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a big focus for not only Pittsburgh students, but across the country,” she said.

“This is an example of how to take the STEM concept and make it fun for students.”

The STEM Education Coalition is part of an effort to keep the U.S. the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century.

“These kids are hopefully the future engineers of this country,” Jesberg said.

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