3 K’NEX Design Challenges

When I started my first makerspace back in 2014, all we had were three bins of K’NEX building tools and a vision for what our space could be. Those three bins led to a complete transformation of our library. Long after we added many other types of tools and materials to our makerspace, K’NEX remained one of my students’ favorite activities. Naturally, we often paired K’NEX with our design challenges. I’ve found that they work particularly well for design challenges for broad age groups, including upper elementary, middle and high school students. They’re great for teacher makerspace workshops too.

Even with no prior experience, it’s easy to grasp how the pieces fit together and work. K’NEX sets are great for rapid prototyping, as it doesn’t take long to put a structure together. They’re budget friendly because they’re sturdy and can be reused over and over again. Any kind of K’NEX can work for a design challenge, but I particularly like general sets, such as the Maker Kit, more than the curriculum-focused ones, as they have a greater variety of pieces and allow for more creativity.

Here are three examples of design challenges that work great with K’NEX:

K’NEX Smartphone Holder1. K’NEX Smartphone Holder

Challenge: Working with your group, use the K’NEX at your table to build something that can hold a smartphone to take a picture or make a stop-motion video. You have 20 minutes. We’ll share our designs with Shark Tank-style pitches.

This was one of the first design challenges I ever created and it remains one of my favorites. The first time I did this one with my students, we had just gotten Apple iPod® Touches for the library. Students were excited to test out the devices and eagerly built all sorts of tripods and holders for making our videos. If you’re looking for a good ice breaker for making, this is it.

Since that first challenge, I’ve used variations of this prompt with classes, clubs and educators. Students love this challenge because it allows them to bring out their devices. There have been selfie sticks, camera dollies on wheels, tripods that swivel, document camera holders and everything in between.

For this challenge, I love to err on the side of offering less time (even as little as 10 minutes) at the beginning to really get everyone prototyping quickly. I’ll add more time if people still need it. If you want to extend the activity, include the creation of a video, and have students share their holders and videos.

K’NEX Building Model of London2. K’NEX Building Model

Challenge: Use K’NEX to create a model of the building or structure in the photograph you’ve been given. Don’t worry about having an exact replica. We’ll be sharing our designs by creating a gallery in the library. You have one hour to work with your group.

This was another early design challenge in the Stewart Makerspace. My students voted to have an Anglophile theme for our book fair, so our K’NEX club built models of famous London landmarks, such as Big Ben, the Eye and London Bridge. The hardest part of this challenge is getting students to accept that their models don’t need to look exactly like the buildings they’re modeled after. I offered up an hour for this one because it takes more time to really brainstorm, plan and create a model like this.

A design challenge like this could work great in connection with a social studies, geography or history class that has a unit on a particular region. You could make models of the pyramids and Sphinx for an Egypt unit or the Eiffel Tower for French class. You could connect these models with the mathematics of architecture and engineering. Or you could just do this challenge for fun during a club. Whichever way you choose, your students will love it.

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Creatures Home built with K’NEX3. K’NEX Creature Home

Challenge: Use K’NEX to build a home for your creature. Think about what types of things your creature might need, such as food, shelter, comfort and aesthetics. We’ll be sharing by creating videos explaining how our creatures will use their homes.

Many makerspace projects can help students to build empathy. In this scenario, students are working from the perspective of a creature and trying to understand what its needs are. The creature could tie in with curriculum (e.g., a science lesson about a certain animal), a picture book, or just plain be fun and whimsical. You could have stuffed animals or figurines to represent the creature. If the creatures are imaginary, you can tie in a writing component by having students draw and describe their animals, what they eat, their behaviors and their habitats.

The beauty of this design challenge is that it offers so much space for creativity. Some students might be very literal and create a bed and a kitchen for their creature. Others might be more imaginative, such as creating a sofa so that their creature can watch television. Your students’ personalities will shine through their projects.

If you like using design challenges like these with your students, be sure to check out my book that I co-wrote with Colleen and Aaron Graves, Challenge-based Learning in the School Library Makerspace. We go into detail about setting up your makerspace for design challenges, creating prompts and empowering your students to share their creations.

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Diana Rendina

Diana Rendina

Diana is the media specialist at a 6–12 independent school in Tampa, FL. She is the creator of the blog Renovated Learning, where she documented the creation of her makerpsace at her previous school, a public magnet middle school. Diana is the winner of the 2016 ISTE Outstanding Young Educator Award, the 2015 AASL Frances Henne Award and the 2015 SLJ Build Something Bold Award. She is an international speaker on the maker movement and has presented at many conferences, including AASL, FETC and ISTE. Diana co-authored Challenge-Based Learning in the School Library Makerspace with Colleen and Aaron Graves, and is the author of Reimagining Library Spaces: Transform Your Space on Any Budget.