Monday, April 3, 2017

K'Nex STEAM Design Challenge

Project Overview

I was recently privileged to serve as a Co-Adviser to a team of 7th and 8th grade students representing Franklin Area Middle School in the K'Nex STEAM Design Challenge hosted by the Riverview Intermediate Unit #6. This challenge, sponsored by Thermo Fisher Scientific, required students to design and build an original theme park ride out of K'Nex. The design was to include a green energy solution for powering the ride. In addition to the structure itself, teams were required to prepare an engineering notebook, a budget for the ride, and a presentation of the ride to a panel of judges. This was a fantastic example of project-based learning and showcased the excitement that will develop around such activities.

The Journey

Again, I served with two middle school colleagues as a Co-Adviser to this team of 7th and 8th grade students. The team of students was selected through an application process conducted with Google Forms. Students simply applied for participation if they were interested and wrote a brief statement of why they were interested. Based on those responses, the advisers selected the team that would represent Franklin Area Middle School in the competition.

Work on this project began back in January. To begin, the team was presented with an official K'Nex Roller Coaster Kit. Starting the students with this kit served several functions:
  • Allowed the students to grow comfortable in working together
  • Gave the leader(s) a chance to step emerge
  • Provided students with experience in working with the K'Nex Building System
  • Sparked ideas for an original design
After completing the roller coaster kit, attention turned to developing the team's original design. Discussions centered around theme and ride type. These brainstorming sessions were interesting as they really allowed the advisers to catch a glimpse of how the students were thinking about this challenge. Ride ideas ranged from a volcano-themed roller coaster in an island-themed amusement park, to crazy nausea-inducing swing-based rides. In the end, after looking at various examples of swinging rides, the students decided on this concept. Now the real work began!

It was easy to see which students had previous experience in working with K'Nex. These students were able to just jump right in and begin snapping pieces together. In a short amount of time, the team had build the base of the ride and then set their sights on building upward. This, too, was a fairly simple process as the students quickly constructed a two-tier tower. It would be the next section, the section that would contain the motor mount, the swing arms, and all motion components, that would challenge this team.

The engineering process was easily visible in this process. The original thought was that the ride would require at least three motors to achieve the motion that the team was shooting for. Through a system of trial and error, however, the team realized that the target motion could be achieved by utilizing gears and only one motor. This realization would allow for fewer pieces and a cheaper ride while doing nothing to sacrifice motion and excitement. Through careful thought and building, the students a ride, complete with the desired motion, but with some significant design flaws as seen below:

While the students achieved the desired motion, the structure itself looked unsound. The swings were bowing and the entire top section was quite unstable. This led to a discussion of strong shapes being used in construction and this led to the decision to utilize triangles in the top section and motor mount. The team then went on to create several iterations of the motor mount and swing arm structure before settling on the final design. In the end, the team settled on a cleaner, more structurally sound design.

The green energy component of the design was settled on toward the end of the design process. Like everything else, this went through a couple of iterations. The original design concept was to include a representation of geothermal energy to power this ride. After talking to another teacher in the building and looking into this concept a little further, it was determined that geothermal energy was not a feasible energy option for this structure. Instead, it was determined that the structure resembled a solar power tower. Upon further research, the team determined that this was a logical power source and a novel take on the typical solar panel. We predicted that many schools would represent solar panels and that the solar power tower would allow our design to stand out and it just seemed like a natural component within the design.

With the design and building accomplished (after about 2 months!), the team began the final push to competition day. This required students to prepare a brief narrative of the entire design process, a research paper pertaining to the chosen green energy source, an overall project budget, project blueprints, and a short presentation. The students were so dedicated to the project that they voluntarily remained at school to work while their classmates attended a roller skating field trip the Friday prior to this competition! Everything came together perfectly just in time to board the buses on competition day.

Competition Day

The team attended the K'Nex STEAM Design Competition on Monday, March 27 at the Riverview Intermediate Unit #6 in Clarion, PA. The event brought 80 students in Grades 4-8 from about 10 area districts together for a day of learning and competition. After some brief opening remarks, the challenge began. Teams were given two hours in which to build their theme park rides. No pieces were to come to the competition assembled - all building had to be done on the spot. The focus these students possessed was truly something to behold. It quickly became obvious that every team brought a unique vision to the project challenge - this is the beauty of project-based learning! 

With the building done, the team was required to present the project to a panel of judges. These judges come from many different backgrounds, including engineering, education, technology, and business development. Each student was required to participate in the presentation and the FMS team spent a considerable amount of time developing this component. Each team member was assigned (by the team) a specific component of the overall project to discuss and they became experts in these areas. The students performed admirably, ditching their note cards and simply talking to the judges about the design concept. This was, in many ways, the most impressive component of this project.

If you've read this far into this post, you've likely noticed the wizard hats being worn by the team. This is inspired by the theme the students selected for this ride. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of the design and build phase, the students looked at the ride and decided that it bore a resemblance to the broomstick in Disney's Sorcerer's Apprentice. This inspired the students to add K'Nex pieces around the base of the ride to represent the bristles of a broom, along with the hats they wore on competition day. This cartoon also inspired the name of the ride - the Fantasia. The judges caught on to this immediately and it was really well received. 

The Results

After a stressful day of competition, it was evident that these judges were in the unenviable position of declaring a winner of this competition. There were so many creative designs presented, making this a very difficult task. After lunch, the attendees came back together for the results. There were many awards given for the day. These included awards for teamwork, best blueprints, most creative design, most successful challenge completion, etc. Knowing that the team performed very well, I'll admit that my heart sank as each award was announced and FMS didn't receive anything! But all hope was not lost.

As the minor awards wrapped up, it was time to award 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place plaques and medals. Third place was announced - we didn't get called. Second place was announced - we didn't get called! At this point, my heart was breaking and my mind automatically began preparing to maintain a strong demeanor in order to reassure the students of the pride I felt and how well they represented FMS and the district. But then, that mental preparation proved to be unnecessary as the first place team was announced and this FMS team was declared the winner of the entire competition!

I could say right now that winning wasn't the most important thing. I could say it was all about the learning and that win or lose, the process was the key component to this activity. I could say that, and, while there is some truth to it, I will also say that winning makes everything better! 

I couldn't be more proud of this group of students 😁

What's Next?

This team of students and advisers will now go on to represent FMS, FASD, and the Riverview Intermediate Unit at the state competition to be held on May 19, 2017 at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.