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KEEN Innovation Challenge Blog

KEEN innovation challenge blog

Four times per year, Ohio Northern University students have a chance to compete in the KEEN Innovation Challenge. Students form teams of three from different majors/disciplines and have one hour to work together to complete an impromptu challenge. After each challenge, the students are invited to submit a reflection detailing the challenge, their team's methods and procedures relating to the challenge, what they enjoyed about the challenge and their learning outcomes. After each challenge a new reflection will be posted here.

October 18, 2016

Josh Woods, Mechanical Engineering

Catapult Challenge

If you want to put your creativity to the test, a KEEN challenge is one of the best places to do so. For this challenge, the goal was to launch a large marshmallow onto a target, with higher point values being awarded for both distance and accuracy. The farther a group could launch the marshmallow; the more points the group would receive. Bonus points were rewarded for also making the shot into one of a couple buckets placed all over the target. In order to do so, groups were given roughly 30 minutes to design and build a catapult. Designs ranged from simply using a single spoon as the entire system, to complex catapults designed to generate a launching force created by wound rubber bands. Building supplies included wooden popsicle sticks of varying sizes, rubber bands, a variety of cups, pipe cleaners, and tape. Groups “bought” supplies with money given at the start, and bonus points were also rewarded for money not spent.

The first challenge that groups faced when designing the catapults was how much money to spend. Until you had your supplies there was no way to tell how successful a catapult would be, so most groups wanted to save money so that they could be considered to have guaranteed points. Then, for my group at least, the spending of money became much like a snowball rolling down a hill. In order to improve our design and score points launching, we had to spend more and more money. This hurt us in the end because at a certain point the points lost spending money were not recovered by the catapult results.

The next challenge was creating a design that could be operated by one hand. In order to get enough spring in the catapult to reach the higher point targets, the catapult system generally became less stable on its own. Many groups solutions to this was to create a catapult small enough that one hand could act as a support and as part of the launch mechanism.

The last challenge was a judging challenge. At one point in the testing, a question was raised as to what was considered an acceptable catapult. It was unclear in the instructions to what extent the groups hand could be included. Some decided to have the hand be the entire base, only relying on bending a spoon back to launch the marshmallow. Some groups, like mine, took the instructions to mean that the hand was only meant to start the action of the catapult by bending or releasing the mechanism. In the end all the groups were able to modify their designs so that they fit the constraints given.

Myself and my group decided to take a fairly simple approach. During our initial discussions we decided that we were not sure we would be able to create a rubber band powered catapult, so we decided to build one powered by gravity instead. In order to do so, we built a stable base built from Styrofoam cups bridged by a straw, then used the popsicle sticks to create a see-saw like arm to launch the marshmallow. We also knew that we would not be able to easily fasten the arm and base together, so we decided to let it slide of as the arm rotated. This proved to be a fantastic decision, as when the arm slid off the base, it would make contact with the table, which in the end helped generate a larger throwing force. In order to launch, all we had to do was place the base on the table and raise the end without the marshmallow and release the system. Our design worked well, however we were not able to place enough weight on the arm, so the marshmallow would hit the target, but not in the high point areas. Another decision that proved detrimental to our score was our decision to prioritize materials over saving money, so in the end we placed in the lower range of scores.

This challenge was an extremely fun and rewarding time. Part of the difficulty came from the money management aspect, and there was an incredible amount of innovation when it came to the catapult designs. I cannot wait to see what the next challenge has in store.

September 13, 2016

Dylan Dolph, Mechanical Engineering

Blindfold Tower Challenge         

Once again, KEEN has found a way to make me use my engineering knowledge in a new fun way. Our group of three members was challenged to create the tallest tower that we could with limited supplies. The catch was that whoever was constructing the tower had to w

es wore the blindfolds while constructing the tower while the queen bee(s) instructed the blinded worker bees how to build the tower but could not touch the tower themselves. To construct this tower, we were given a roll of tape, nine solo cups, nine foam cups and 20 Dixie cups.

            Before we started, we tried to make a brief strategy on how we would build our tower. We decided to have two worker bees and one queen bee. Our plan was to simply stack all the cups up in a straight vertical tower. First we tried to stack all the solo cups together, followed by the foam cups and then only had time to stack a few more Dixie cups after that. Since the solo cups were more stable we put them on the bottom, plus their extra weight would have made the tower fall over if they were stacked on top of the foam cups or Dixie cups. As a worker bee, my job was to rip the tape pieces to a proper length so that another worker bee could try to tape together the cups.

I found it was a struggle to quickly rip off proper lengths of tape to attach to the cups because of the blindfold. I think that if the other worker bee and I could have ripped the tape off quicker and more efficiently, we could have actually used all of our cups and made our tower much higher. Besides not working fast enough, I think our strategy itself was good, it even helped us to earn second place.

This was an interesting challenge because inspired more effective communication skills among teammates and required you to listen and trust your teammates since you couldn’t see what you were doing or where the materials were at. It was a refreshing twist that was different from most challenges (except the programming/coding challenge last year with the blindfolded person driving an RC car) that influenced people to think and problem solve like an engineer would.

ear a blindfold. This threw in a good twist and required more efficient teamwork. Failure to work together quickly and effectively could waste time or even destroy your tower. Each group had to divide their members into either “worker bees” or “queen bees.” The worker be

February 23, 2016


KEEN challenges are a fun way to compete and possibly earn some money. The latest KEEN Innovation Challenge was a tower constructing competition. Each team was given a brown lunch bag with various arts and crafts items to use for their assembly. The bag consisted of many straws, pipe cleaners, paperclips, thin rope, a couple of Popsicle sticks and two clothespins. All teams had 40 minutes to construct their tower however they saw fitting. The goal was to create the tallest tower which was able to hold a tennis ball at its tallest point. The tennis ball had to sit atop of the tower for 30 seconds and if the tower was successful in that feat, then it was measured. The tallest tower won.

My team was comprised of me and my good friend; we are both freshman mechanical engineers. (Our other usual teammate decided to get lunch instead…what a shame.) We did a poor job at reading the directions for the last challenge, so right off the bat we made sure that we understood what was being asked. He and I did our own constructing at first to see if either of us could come up with a solid base. My ideas were not faring well for me, but he seemed to be creating quite a stable base. As time was running down, we came back together and I helped him with his design. There was about one minute left and we had constructed a tower that was able to hold the tennis ball, but after looking around, we realized that it had to be taller. To fix this problem, we took the piece of paper that the directions were on, rolled it up like a telescope and put pipe cleaners around it. We then took that piece of paper and lodged it near the top of our tower. We rushed to see if the ball would balance at the top of the rolled paper, and thankfully it did.

Our creation was decently similar to the rest of the competition, except for the rolled up paper. Thankfully this piece of paper gave us about 8 or 9 inches of extra height. We were not victorious, but second place is not bad.  Effective communication is important during KEEN Challenges because of the limited amount of time and fierce competition. My friend and I did little talking in the beginning, but as the end was approaching, we did a good job of helping each other out as we constructed a tower about 23 inches tall.  

These challenges are very exhilarating. It is always fun to create something in 40 minutes, which has a chance at winning, without any prior knowledge beforehand. I can relate these experiences to my Introduction to Engineering class. In both my class and the challenges, we have limited resources, time, and teammates to work with. This is beneficial because in the “real world”, we will have similar scenarios. What I found interesting about the challenge is how we use common items to create structures that are quite sturdy. KEEN Innovation Challenges force you to think outside the box which only helps you grow. I recommend that all engineers participate because the challenges are interactive and test many of your abilities. 

Winning Reflection - Joshua Turich, Mechanical Engineering 

February 9, 2016

Most affordable bridge ChALLENGE

KEEN Innovation Challenges always offer a fun way to exercise my brain. This past challenge involved bridge building. Each competing team had 40 minutes to construct a two foot bridge to hold two pounds of weight for 10 seconds without failure. To be declared the winner of the challenge, each team had to wisely spend a $7200 allowance to make their bridge as cheap as possible. This allowance could be spent on various materials such as dowel rods, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, duct tape, pipe cleaners, and other similar resources.

My team consisted of 3 mechanical engineers. We immediately spent the first few minutes brainstorming a few different methods we could use to create our bridge. After a quick cost analysis, we decided to attach several dowel rods with rubber bands, adding popsicle sticks for extra support. We then created a cradle like structure to hang beneath the dowel rods to hold and distribute the weight. The cradle consisted of a base made up of parallel popsicle sticks held together by pipe cleaners, which were attached to the dowel rods above with pipe cleaners. This easy construction required very few materials and actually ended up having the lowest cost throughout the competition of $1300, earning us first place!

Our design was a lot simpler and cheaper than the other designs. Several other teams tried to use duct tape and zip ties to construct their bridges, a strategy we quickly ruled out because of the high cost of materials. Proper strategizing has proved to be a big part of these challenges, as it has ruined many of our attempts towards success in the past. At previous challenges, my team has tried to make last minute adjustments and it has ruined our product and caused us to lose.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the challenge was working to create something out of nothing within a time constraint. One of the most interesting aspects of engineering is problem solving, which KEEN always incorporates in its challenges. This challenge specifically allowed me to apply things I learned last semester in my statics class as well as in other engineering related courses I’ve taken. Furthermore, I was able to learn more about engineering from this hands on experience. That’s the reason I aim to compete in every KEEN Innovation Challenge.


Winning Reflection - Dylan Dolph, Mechanical Engineering 

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