STEM Advantage: K'NEX Challenge


By Robert Marshall

Did you know the future development of this nation depends on you? OK, not solely you, but innovation, cognitive engineering solutions and an aptitude for science is the responsibility of you, me and everyone, which is why the government created the federal STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiative.

The United States population is continually threatened by scientific illiteracy. Roads, transportation systems, waterways and electrical grids lack the support of their current continued use. Furthermore, world statistics report that the U.S. is lacking in the development of technologies that drive the future of the economy. How can you be a part of the solution to these issues? Participate in STEM education and programming.

The Challenge

I am an amateur astronomer, museum educator and science workshop guru traveling the country for Fisher Science Education delivering STEM workshops. Recently, I had the distinct opportunity to participate in a unique STEM competition in my own city: the Pittsburgh K'Nex Challenge which is organized and hosted by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. If you are not familiar with the educational building material K'Nex, think of lanky Lego* pieces that snap together via angled joints. The purpose of the K'Nex Challenge is to provide an opportunity each year for teams of area middle school students to solve an engineering problem using both a creative and realistic process.

STEM is all about preparing the future workforce of America. This year they are asked to build a bridge. But not just any bridge. To get these kids designing, they are asked to span a four-foot gap while only using one support column. In addition, they are required to incorporate a motor into the bridge system for any reason they choose: lift section, draw the bridge, pull a vehicle across, whatever the team decides. After construction, teams are not judged simply on completing the task, but on creativity as well.

For a young engineer it may sound like a fun time. And that is the purpose – to allow students to engage in the learning process while having fun. America has a responsibility to invest in its future engineers. The K'Nex Challenge is a STEM program that is moving in the right direction.

Classroom Discussion

  • Discuss other important issues we face in the future that may require STEM education
  • Brainstorm challenges or competitions you want to see your school participate in that will excite students to fill STEM career fields