Chris Drage uses Data Harvest's K'NEX control kit for an engaging STEM approach to programming
K'NEX controlBridge keeper Chris Drage with the K'NEX version of Tower BridgeThe government is changing what children learn about computers following a successful campaign that established the importance of basic programming skills for the future. This has to be built on practical hands-on tasks that will include children making games and controlling robots.

Although laudable, as we discovered in the early 1980s few students go on to use their programming skill to a higher level. Many drop by the wayside. Programming in school is  not a new phenomenon. Arguably a better medium for learning control is via control technology: programming real models in the real world. At least in this context there is something concrete and tangible to learn about and understand.

The K'NEX STEM Computer Control Pack offers real-world opportunities for programming and controlling with the bonus that it integrates science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in one neat, attractive package. Once a chosen model is constructed (mine was Tower Bridge), using control software and an interface box, students are able to code and see the results of their programming in the dynamic terms of the model’s performance. In addition, the K’NEX Control Pack offers unlimited opportunities to set challenges and to make and learn from mistakes – a vital aspect of all learning.

K'NEX Computer Control comes in two flavours. There's the K'NEX Discover Control Box for building five K'NEX models (one at a time), each a functioning replica of a real-world amusement park themed model: Gateway, Spinning Carpet Ride, Double Ferris Wheel, Swing Ride and a Tramcar. The control box is an intelligent interface that can remember the order and duration in which switches are pressed, and the time between the presses, and then play back from memory. It can store up to 64 actions and allows for multiple outputs (motors, LEDs, buzzer) to be controlled simultaneously. It includes 336 K'NEX parts.

Data Harvest’s Discover Control box and software provides two geared motors, two LEDs, one buzzer, building instructions, student challenges and teacher guide. This control set simply deals with outputs (turning things on or off) and is ideal for younger children who have progressed from programming devices like Roamer Too (see 'break out the batteries – here comes Roamer Too!").

The second set is the K'NEX STEM Computer Control Pack which sets challenges for students to build and control K'NEX models using the K'NEX Computer Control interface. It is an altogether different beast as it offers opportunities for feedback control, therefore presenting programmers with Boolean ‘IF and THEN’ conditional actions. This is an even more creative approach and It is with this set that I chose to challenge myself with the task of building the set’s most ambitious model: an automatic twin-bascule bridge (Tower Bridge in London) with the additional challenge of adding and programming ‘STOP’ and ‘GO’ lights plus an audible warning signal to alert pedestrians and motorists.

The set comprises 699 K'NEX parts, K'NEX Computer Control Interface (Flowgo) and GO Software including ACEs (Animated Control Environments – accurate simulations), two geared motors, three LEDs, one buzzer, two push button switches, two reed switches, four magnets, building instructions, student challenges and teacher guide. Students write programs to control on-screen K'NEX models using the software included, and then download their procedures into the interface's memory and use them to operate the K'NEX models they have built.

A total of five K'NEX models can be created (one at a time) which, as with those in the ‘Discover’ pack, are fully functioning replicas of real-world set-ups. They include a Sliding Door, Lift, Oscillating Fan, Super Spinner Ride and Bascule Bridge. The Key Concepts include design process/engineering, systems and organisation, communication of mathematical thinking, forces, energy and motion, troubleshooting and optimisation and exploratory learning.

Most children are familiar with K’NEX which is an American construction system with elements designed to combine to create what is in essence a wire-frame model. Once you are familiar with its various joiners and brackets, models are fairly simple to construct. The various construction guides are presented as PDF files on the accompanying disc and it's probably best that you print these out – unless you have lots of space around your computer desk.

The diagrams are mostly in isometric form which can lead to confusion as to what elements are assembled behind others in the construction process.  However, any experienced 11-year-old should have no problems with it!. I had to enlist the help of one such youngster in order to complete the bascule bridge!  

Maybe have ready-constructed models and focus on the programming?

If cost is not an issue, then it would pay to purchase as many kits as the models you want the students to build and then complete models offer immediate control programming opportunities without having to go through the (sometimes) lengthy process of constructing each one. It depends, of course, on your focus but I see this set as focusing on control programming so the time spent on constructing a model might be considered wasteful.    

With a well-constructed bascule bridge to hand the next step is to assign students to program it.  With the automatic bridge the process is as follows:

  • A switch to indicate a vessel needs to pass under the bridge;
  • A red light and buzzer warn traffic to stop and not traverse the bridge;
  • The bascules rise together;
  • A suitable pause;
  • The bascules lower into their ‘traffic’ position again;
  • A green light and buzzer let traffic know that it is safe to traverse the bridge.

Breaking the project down is this manner lends itself to groups of students collaboratively writing procedures to deal with each step in the process.  However, I tried this (most logical) approach and discovered that the GO Software would not allow me to accumulate the procedures and create a simple program calling the procedures one at a time – a shortcoming which Data Harvest is aware of and correcting. I did eventually get all the procedures into the main program and the demonstration video (below) speaks for itself!

To avoid the need for multiple models for students to experiment with, Data Harvest have included an ACE working simulation for students to program on-screen before attempting to control the real model. It provides clear visual demonstrations of exactly what your procedures will do.

For those not familiar with the GO software it offers a simple yet comprehensive programming language that allows students to program and control both real-world models and devices (with the addition of a suitable control interface) as well as their sophisticated, on-screen ACEs. GO is based on standard flowcharts which are both very visual and easy to understand, so students can quickly achieve great results. In addition to the standard flowchart language, GO offers a side-by-side view of the program in text-based commands. This high-level textual representation uses everyday language and avoids the risk of errors caused by complex syntax and typing errors. GO‘s design, structure and visual appeal, coupled with its excellent ACEs, make this control software ideal for schools.

This set has been designed for use with FlowGo, a control interface box (when all the inputs and outputs etc are physically plugged in). It could also be used with other makes of control interfaces that have a 6v output and use 4mm output and input connectors. However, there are distinct advantages to the Flowgo interface, not least of which is the ability to download students' completed programs to the interface and run them independently of any computer.

Connecting via either USB or serial port, you download your program to the FlowGo interface and let the system you have created take control. This virtually mimics what would happen in the real world. The interface has six outputs, four inputs, two variable motor outputs and two analogue inputs (for sensors). Another feature is its ability to run independently of mains power. An optional battery box that takes C cells is available and recommended. It is a boon if you want to impress parents on that open evening where a control model is set up in the foyer running a program developed by the students. Better still if those students are on hand to describe the challenges and the complexity of creating it!

Control technology can provide children with experience of higher-order thinking in developing, for example, complex systems which simulate the world around them. This can be seen most clearly in the control hardware and software currently available. This ranges from programmable robots like Roamer Too to programmable controllers that can operate a sequence of actions – eg lights, motors, etc – without a computer. The K'NEX STEM Computer Control Pack enables students to build and control K’NEX models using a computer while leaning and applying STEM concepts. In addition, there are numerous other key areas of learning they will develop along the way including:

  • Exploratory and discovery learning;
  • Critical thinking and problem solving;
  • Sequential thinking and patterns;
  • Active engagement to find solutions;
  • Trouble shooting;
  • Testing, evaluating and modifying;
  • Working collaboratively:
  • Discovering that there can be more than one correct answer.

In a nut shell the K'NEX STEM Computer Control Pack offers an excellent, engaging cross-curricular means of integrating computer programming with practical activity using real-world scenarios. Thoroughly recommended.

Ratings (out of 5)

Fitness for purpose    4
Ease of use                4
Features                     4
Quality                        5
Value for money         5

K'NEX STEM Discover Control Pack    
Control technology construction pack using the ‘Learn & Go’ system, £149   

K'NEX STEM Computer Control Pack 
Control technology construction pack using Flowgo interface box and GO software, £249 

Data Harvest Group Ltd, 1 Eden Court, Leighton Buzzard, Beds. LU7 4FY
Tel: 01525 373666
Fax: 01525 851638

Chris DrageChris Drage, a former teacher, is a consultant and journalist covering learning with ICT. You can contact him by email - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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