Bringing engineering to life with some Key Stage 2 schoolchildren and K’nex

Last year, I signed up as a STEM Ambassador. With my employer’s backing, I can now volunteer to take part in events that are intended to bring Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects to life and demonstrate their value in life and in careers.

I receive regular invitations to take part in events but, until recently, I hadn’t been able to make them fit around my calendar. Then, a few weeks ago, I saw an invitation to run an engineering workshop with some Year 4-6 students as part of a school Science Day. The brief was to give a short presentation on:

  • What is STEM?
  • Why STEM skills are important
  • The story of what I was like at school and what I wanted to do for a job
  • What I do now
  • What I enjoy about my job

and then to facilitate an activity, breaking the children into small teams with a box of K’nex to build a tower that could support a small object.

I was pretty nervous about the activity – after all, I’m not a teacher! I spent quite a bit of time tuning the presentation and, taking advice from my own children (who are in years 6 and 8), making sure there were lots of images (that’s my style anyway) and animations. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the school, the animations were useless: PowerPoint 2010 didn’t like my 2016-based graphics so I quickly removed all of the transitions and animations – and the moral of the story there is don’t take advice from your 13 year-old…

I ran two workshops, each with a class of around 28 children. The teachers were present at all times (dealing with any disruptive children) and I found I just needed to be myself, to answer the children’s questions (which, of course, ranged from “what age can you start being an engineer?” to “what car do you drive?”) and to guide them during the activity.

I set out the activity as a challenge, with requirements and materials:

STEM engineering challenge, with requirements and materials

but I didn’t tell the children how to make a tower strong.

Time to test the towers

Only after we had tested it, did we spend some time talking about the things they had done to make their towers work (and all of them had managed this themselves, whether they did it consciously or not).

Making towers strong and stable

It was fantastic to see how each group approached the activity – each team had different ideas for how they might use the K’nex. Some children had played with it before whilst others needed some advice on how to make the connectors and rods fit together but almost every team completed the challenge successfully. The one team that didn’t complete the task had struggled because they had divided into two smaller groups and ended up with two short towers – that gave me an opportunity to talk about teamwork and also about project management (managing to time!).

I came away from school that afternoon with a great buzz. It’s wonderful to hear children say things like “I like your lessons – they’re fun!” and “Are you coming back next year?”. And, if you want to know more about STEM Ambassadors (either getting someone involved in an activity or event – or perhaps becoming one yourself), check out the website.

3 thoughts on “Bringing engineering to life with some Key Stage 2 schoolchildren and K’nex


  1. Mark –

    Awesome!! And to let you into a little secret I taught for 16 years and always ran the activity past my own kids beforehand … Dad’s little guinea pigs!!

    Best wishes and thank you taking the time to do this

    Mark Robinson
    STEM Ambassador HUB Staffordshire and Shropshire

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