This week, my daughter and I had the opportunity to tour the K’NEX factory in Hatfield, PA and meet the all-female team that created the new line of Mighty Makers, a line of construction toys designed to encourage girls to build big ideas using STEM concepts. We received 3 of the fun new building kits and promptly built all of them that day. All opinions expressed in this post are my own.
See our Ferris Wheel in action at the end!
K’NEX is not new to STEM education. Here in Pennsylvania, a homegrown K’NEX STEM challenge for students in the Pittsburgh area has gone state-wide in just 5 years. Last year, when my 11 year old participated in the challenge in our local intermediate unit, just 3 schools – 2 public and 1 parochial – participated. This year, the challenge was moved to a larger location to accommodate about 50 teams participating at the elementary and middle school level. The winner of the intermediate unit went on to participate in the state-level competition.
As a parent of 4 boys and 1 girl, I was thrilled to see how many girls participated in the challenge. For months, they spent time creating their design from scratch and building it again and again until they met the challenge criteria. Because of the challenge, the girls learned to work together as a team and each girl had an opportunity to talk about their design and creative process in front of 2 judges. I wasn’t surprised to hear the girls talk about joining the challenge again during the next school year.
While women make up a larger percentage of the American workforce, women are woefully behind when it comes to STEM jobs. Only 25% of women in the workforce have STEM jobs: 15.7% of chemical engineers and 7.2% of mechanical engineers. Research shows that girls lose interest in science as early as middle school.
K’NEX all-female Mighty Maker Design Team
While there has been a huge push in education to encourage girls in the sciences and math, that push has not shown up in the toy aisle. The introduction of Lego Friends met with a huge backlash in 2012. The Lego Friends sets focused on girls hanging out and looking pretty. When K’NEX did their own market research with focus groups, girls told the researchers they want to build cars and airplanes, not beauty parlors.
Realizing that girls love characters and stories, K’NEX took their mechanical builds and developed a new color palette aimed towards girls along with characters to go with each of the 6 building sets. While the color palette is girly, I liked that it was bright and clean, not glittery. With touches of black, white, and green, my boys wouldn’t feel like they were playing with a “girls” toy. In fact, the boys were all over the K’NEX Mighty Maker sets when we brought them home!
K’NEX Factory Tour
We kicked off our day at the K’NEX headquarters with a tour of the manufacturing facility lead by President and CEO, Michael Araten. He showed us how the molds for the toy pieces are made beginning in the Engineering Department and moving out to the factory floor.
As we toured the floor, the girls saw the small white pellets turn into K’NEX and Tinker Toys right before their eyes.
Of course, we had to take a photo in the very spot where President Obama stood and talked to the K’NEX employees when he visited the factory.
After a talk with the Mighty Maker design team about the process for creating the new line of building toys and the type of education needed to be a toy designer, we set to work building a Mighty Maker kit. Initially, my daughter was a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of the Ferris Wheel kit. The color-based instruction manual made it to figure out the next step. I was happy to see how sturdy the instruction manual was since they often take a beating in my family of 5 kids.
Our Completed K’NEX Mighty Maker Ferris Wheel
K’NEX Mighty Makers Building Sets for Girls
Mighty Makers Building Sets are available now, exclusively at Toys R Us, and will be available at toy stores nationwide beginning August 1, 2015.