At the high school and college level, STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, often brings to mind test tubes, computer chips and the Pythagorean Theorem, but for a group of Kutztown students STEM connects to something a bit simpler: K’Nex.

At the sixth annual STEM Design Challenge featuring K’Nex, hosted by the Berks County Intermediate Unit, Kutztown middle schoolers Karis Herrlin, Abby Rabert, and Otis Engel secured third place honors for their creation. Going by the team name “K’nection”, they were joined by a second middle school team comprised of Aydin Geist, Elise Sica, Emily Bray, and Jordan Keller.

Kutztown Elementary sent two teams to the competition at the 4th-5th grade level, where they were the only elementary schoolers to use robotics to satisfy the challenge. The participating team members were Luke Keller, Torrin Ream, Jack Moriarty, Johnathan Bellenoit, Anna Stump, Peytan Diffenbaugh, Jillian Rager, and Elliot Johnson.

This year’s challenge was to pick three objects up off of the ground, move them a minimum of six inches, and put them back down. Other than these parameters, competitors were free to design their creations as anything they wanted, which called for plenty of creativity from the students.

“It helps with your creativity process because it’s not like you’re given a task to create something that’s already been created and you just have to recreate it,” said Bray. “You have to think about what it’s going to be and how it’s going to work.”

The event was sponsored by Thermo Fisher, who provided each team with a basic K’Nex set. According to their website, the organization’s mission is “to enable our customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer.”

In accordance with Thermo Fisher’s goals, one of the main objectives for each team’s creation was to promote environmental responsibility. According to Stump, “You got bonus points if it would help the environment and was eco-friendly.”

To satisfy this aspect of the challenge, one of the two elementary teams designed their robot so that it would use a color sensor to detect the color of each object it handled and place the object in one of three areas which corresponded to the color of said object. This simulated the separation of waste into garbage, recycling, and compost.

At both the elementary and middle school levels, the teams separated the project into different sections so that each team member had a specific task to lead. This way the teams could achieve maximum productivity while also making sure everyone was included.

“There were four choices that we could have done. You could have either done the journal, the blueprint, the building, or you could have done the research,” said Johnson. “Within our group we decided together who would do what job.”

“We played to our strengths,” added Geist, “and it really helped us.”

Teams were given two hours to build their creations at the BCIU, and this period was followed by a two-minute presentation. The added element of a time constraint made the experience a bit more difficult.

“We were on our final step which was connecting everything,” said Stump, “and it wouldn’t connect, and we didn’t know what the problem was, and because we couldn’t really see [the diagram] that well with how it did connect, so we were basically trying to put it in upside down and it didn’t work and it didn’t look right.”

The middle school teams encountered obstacles of their own when they had to adapt to conform to nuances in the challenge that they had originally looked past. Teamwork helped the students to overcome problems such as these both leading up to and during the competition.

“When we received clarifications of the challenge details from the BCIU, twice the groups needed to vastly change their design because we interpreted the challenge much different than they intended it,” said Aaron Ashman, the middle school teams’ supervisor and gifted teacher. “Each time, though, the students went through the design process again and ended up with something that completed the challenge task better than before.”

Looking ahead to next year, students were already coming up with ways to improve on their performance this year. Despite the impressive solutions from this year’s challenge, they had already noticed potential keys to success that could be enhanced in the future.

According to Ream, “There were times when we would goof off a little bit, and in the end, it cut really close. We still got through it, but it definitely would have been more comfortable if we had used our time a little bit more wisely.”

Moriarty posited one of the potential causes of his team’s time deficit.

“Don’t over complicate anything,” he said, adding that after adjusting their design from a very complex one to something much more simplistic, they were left wondering, “Why didn’t we just do this from the start?”

After her team nearly missed a rule that would have disqualified their original design, Rabert added, “The instructions, make sure we follow those!”

Refusing to rest on their laurels, Rabert and her classmates will look to earn a berth at the state competition next year by winning first place at the BCIU. As for this year’s results, all four teams agreed that what they learned will aid them greatly when embarking on other projects both in and outside of school.

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