Prepare for lift-off

Mike Levy

Two nine-year-olds have seen off older competition to become top junior engineers. Mike Levy reports

NASA watch out: two British engineers have designed a new international space station, and they are only nine years old. Ruairi Armstrong (no relation to Neil) and Michael Hunter, from Coulter Primary School in Biggar, South Lanarkshire, have won the Junior Engineer For Britain K'Nex Challenge 2005, held at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

The finalists' task was to design and build an international space station, using only K'Nex building blocks and their own creative imaginations. The annual challenge, for nine to 11-year-olds, was established seven years ago in association with Young Engineers, a UK-based educational charity whose purpose is to inspire young people to recognise the importance and excitement of a career in engineering.

Competitors have to use K'Nex to create two structures, but the subject is always a secret until the challenge begins. Space had been used as the theme throughout the regional heats, with teams previously having to build moon buggies, astronaut exercise machines and space shuttles. The final challenge was much more demanding. More than 75,000 children from all over the country took part, with just 11 teams making it to the final.

Lift-off for the final was on the dot of 1.30 pm (Greenwich Mean Time plus 1). The children were told they had less than two hours to design and build a space station and convince the judges that they were working to a viable plan.

As they were given their task, the teams (all boys this year) got to grips with designing a model space station that would meet strict criteria: it had to house eight astronauts, a science lab and satellite communications.

It also had to have a working docking station for the space shuttle.

Each pair was given a model of the Nasa shuttle. Once the 10 minutes'

design time was up they got to work with amazing speed and dexterity.

Competitors were not only racing against the clock, they also had to face some pretty demanding questions from the panel of judges: "Did you keep to your plans?", "Why does the station have that shape?", "What problems did you have and how did you overcome them?"

The children showed remarkable ability to change plans in mid-course as some designs were found to be unworkable. Some had to make the living quarters smaller, others had to abandon a circular craft that just would not hold together. Others failed a rather stern test set by the judges: the station had to withstand a meteor shower (simulated by throwing K'Nex models of space debris at the fuselage). Some found their original designs to be over ambitious; others not ambitious enough.

Alicia Sacha from Hasbro UK comments: "All of the children in the final did extremely well, but Ruairi and Michael's space station was a clear favourite with the judges. Every year the challenge goes from strength to strength, with more and more schools participating. It's a fantastic interactive and hands-on initiative - teachers can take a real-life engineering design task into primary schools. It gives children a wonderful opportunity to gain an insight into a career in engineering."

Top Gear's Richard Hammond presented Ruairi and Michael, the youngest competitors in the final, with the trophy. The boys also won pound;1,000 for their school, pound;500 each and a bundle of K'nex prizes. Michael was delighted: "It was absolutely brilliant winning the competition. Building the space station was quite hard but I think we worked well together in a team."

* For more information on the K'Nex Challenge 2006, contact Young Engineers: Tel: 01428

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Mike Levy

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