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CSIU holds 10th annual K'Nex STEM Design Challenge

As seen in the Milton's Standard Journal
Written by Lauryn Longacre

MILTON — Nearly 40 elementary and middle school students from across the region immersed themselves in learning Tuesday, as they designed and built motorized machines from building toys.

Students in grades three through eight participated in the 10th annual K’Nex STEM Design Challenge, held at the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU).

Prior to the event, the students spent months planning, illustrating and building structures with K’Nex rod and connector building systems. This year’s challenge was for the students to target agricultural issues to help farmers in Pennsylvania.

Colleen Epler-Ruths, STEM education consultant with CSIU, said the competition has always focused on a topic related to Pennsylvania. It featured two levels of competition.

The first level was for fourth- and fifth-grade students, who had to display what they built, present a journal documenting their process, and create a sketch or pictures of their final design.

The second level was for the sixth- through eighth-grade students, who had to also generate a realistic budget for their design if it were to be developed.

Students began building structures at 9 a.m. and were given two hours until they had to present their final design, using up to 1,400 K’Nex pieces.

There were eight teams of three to four students each, from the Benton, Midd-West, Mifflinburg, Millville and Danville school districts, and River Valley Nature School.

One team from Mifflinburg Elementary School was composed of four third-grade students, the youngest in the challenge.

Shawn Welch, Mifflinburg’s enrichment teacher, said the girls started working on their structure — named the “Plant-a-Seed Car” — in January.

During the demonstration, the students noted a motor in the back of the car makes it move, and a motor in the center turns over side arms that drop seeds.

While presenting their process, Reagan Spotts said the original design was too hard to complete so the girls had to come up with a new one, utilizing computers at their school.

“At first, when we were coming up with the idea, it was hard,” said Arihanna Virgo. “But, then once we… got it down, it started to get easier.”

If given more time, Coorie Hackenberg said the team would have added features that would dig up dirt as well.

“It helps them learn to fail some. I think it’s important that kids realize you can’t always succeed on your first try,” Welch said. “With an engineering project, it inherently offers lots of things to go wrong. So it lets them, kind of, build up that resiliency and develop problem-solving skills in a safe way.”

The girls noted that all it took to become more interested in the project was some trial and error as they practiced over the past few months.

Another group from the River Valley Nature School, a private school in Lewisburg, created The Food Factory. The machine is meant to “safely and efficiently produce foods for the less fortunate,” said seventh grader Gabriel Morales.

“Think of the world we live in. Pollution, global warming, and famine, these problems must be addressed. Our team has worked together on a machine we believe will help end world starvation,” said sixth grader Arjun Leal, as he presented to the judges.

The team touched on the impact of food deserts, or as Morales explained, “where produce is scarce and there aren’t many grocery stores.”

The Food Factory designed by the students featured three solar panels to power it.

Fifth grader Jack Pfeifer, another member of the team, explained how arms on the inside of the structure would carry crops to a shoot where a cable car waits to deliver the crops to the farmer’s desired destination.

River Valley Nature School teacher Elizabeth Sterling said she was proud of the nine students who participated in the event this year.

“They were nervous but really, really looking forward to this event,” Sterling said. “It’s just a great way to allow the students to be creative and use their STEM skills to solve a problem… This is a great example of science as a process rather than just a body of knowledge.”

Designs were judged based on the students creativity, success, design, presentation and teamwork.

This year’s judges included CSIU Special Projects Technology Manager Jeff Kay, Columbia-Montour Area Vocational-Technical School Drafting and Design Instructor Pam Slusser, Commander of the 193rd Force Support Squadron Lt. Col. Anne Furman, and The Improved Milton Experience (TIME) Executive Director George Venios.

First-place winners for the elementary school level were Matthew Raski, Ryan Yu, Natalie Minemyer and Genevieve Little from Central Columbia.

Winners for the middle school level were Morales, Pfeifer, and Leal from the River Valley Nature School.

Trophies for the winners were created out of K’Nex pieces by Columbia-Montour Vo-Tech students Leland Altamirano and Corey Riba.

The K’Nex STEM Competition has been hosted by the CSIU since 2014, missing only two years during the COVID-19 Pandemic, according to Epler-Ruths.