Penn College student ‘constructs’ his future at K’NEX

Published 11.09.2018

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Some people spend a lifetime searching for that elusive “dream job.” Thomas Proske spent a summer experiencing his, thanks to an internship at a prominent toy maker.

The Pennsylvania College of Technology industrial design student worked on the design team at K’NEX in Hatfield. A division of Basic Fun, K’NEX is the maker of iconic construction toys pieced together by colorful, interlocking plastic components.

“It was pretty much, ‘Here, go make stuff,’” said Proske, a sophomore from Laceyville. “I didn’t know that they were going to sit me down and have me build all day. It was such an awesome job."

Thomas ProskeThe internship was just for a couple months, but the impact of Proske’s imagination lingers at the company. Some of the sets that he designed and built will be sold by K’NEX in 2019.

“Thomas was able to visualize an idea in his head and create a model that was unique and highly detailed,” said Heather Croston, design manager at K’NEX.

With an endless supply of small plastic rods, connectors and bricks at his disposal, Proske enjoyed carte blanche in crafting unique models, structures and machines. He could even include wheels, pulleys and motors. The only stipulation? His creations had to stay below a specific price point.

“Sometimes, I would have to replace this part with that part to bring down the cost but still have it look good,” Proske said. “It was actually a lot of fun troubleshooting how to make it more cost- effective. I had to play around a lot.”

“You could tell he definitely had experience building with the K’NEX product and understood how the system worked,” said Jon Gumble, product and display designer at K’NEX. “He was a great intern and honestly a really good K’NEX builder.”

Proske spent countless hours of his youth playing with K’NEX sets and Legos. He graduated into making costumes and props inspired by his favorite video games. Proske is still apt to employ sheets of ethylene-vinyl acetate foam (a rubber-like elastic material) to craft costumes for attending comic cons. In fact, he recently spoke about prop and costume creation at The Dr. Welch Workshop: A Makerspace at Penn College.

His first visit to campus came in ninth grade when he accompanied his older sister, a prospective culinary arts student, to an Open House. Proske’s interest in design and “making stuff” prompted him to seek information on the college’s industrial design major.  After a brief conversation with Thomas E. Ask, professor of industrial design, he knew Penn College would be his future home.

“Dr. Ask has a very welcoming attitude about him,” Proske said. “He’s a fun guy, and the major looked really fun.”

Reality has matched his expectations.

“The classes are great,” he said. “It’s been all hands-on, drawing, building models, building straight from your mind. As long as it’s creative and applies to what we want to learn, Dr. Ask lets us have free rein.

“When I look at a two-dimensional picture, all I can think about is how I can make it three-dimensional and real. In industrial design, it really is all about taking something in your mind that you want to make and bringing it to reality. It’s a great fit for me.”

So was the internship at K’NEX.

“K’NEX encourages whimsy and creative expression,” Ask said. “There are few constraints, and you can build large designs quickly. Thomas had experience with model making previously, so the open and free format of K’NEX was well-aligned with his strengths.”

Proske obtained that experience interning for two summers at a model-making shop in Cincinnati. He made all sorts of sculptures – molded and casted with fiberglass – for the firm’s amusement park clients. A desire for a new experience prompted him to pursue and secure the K’NEX internship.

“We are always on the lookout for strong K’NEX builders, and after interviewing Thomas, I felt that he was creative and could bring something new to our product line,” Croston said.

But first, he had to prove himself by constructing a massive Ferris wheel, a classic K’NEX favorite for trade shows and conventions. Proske spent four days combing through thousands of parts and a thick instruction booklet to build the 6-foot-high structure.

“It was fun, but my fingers were sore for a few weeks after that,” he said with a chuckle. “I think that was an initiation. After that, it was build whatever you like.”

Some of Proske’s beloved creations include a three-wheel car, a scorpion, a blue crab and a swing set.  At the top of his list is an 8-inch anglerfish that replicates the intimidating appearance of the carnivorous, deep-sea species.

“The mouth opens and closes and the teeth lock together,” he said. “The actual fish has a little light that hangs off its head, so I have a neon orange piece at the end of the antenna attached to the model’s head. It’s really cool.”

Proske is most excited that the internship confirmed his career aspirations. He hopes to model his future after his K’NEX experience and work in toy design. His time at the company should help that dream materialize.

“K’NEX is a name brand,” he said. “I think when people see that I was on the design team there they are going to say, ‘This kid isn’t just some guy. He has design experience.’ I think that’s going to take me far.”

For more about Penn College’s industrial design major and other programs offered by the college’s School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.

For more about Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education and workforce development, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.