Inspirational scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson : Opening the tech door for kids

September 28, 2015 4:54 pm


Michelle Dickinson aka Nanogirl helps a group of children at a Grid AKL,
an event to try and get children interested in and .
Photo / SuppliedInspirational scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson this week launches one
of her proudest inventions – a new charity that will connect our kids
with technology and hands-on innovation.

It began with a little girl and a dining table full of junk.
little girl’s family might have been poor, but the assortment of bits
and pieces her father would bring home and spread about the kitchen
unlocked a special world few kids ever got to see.
Her father,
frantically trying to teach himself aircraft avionics for a better job
in the military, had surrounded himself with soldering irons,
engineering textbooks and items like a ZX Spectrum computer that he
hardly knew how to use.
The little girl began tinkering with the
junk herself and trying to solder pieces of it together, before too many
burns on her fingers forced dad to give her a tutorial.
the pair were buying broken toasters, televisions and washing machines
to fix up – anything bought new was a waste of money.

“Just taking them apart and understanding how electricity was
flowing through and the information was transferring … yeah man,
that’s awesome,” says Dr Michelle Dickinson, today one of our country’s
most inspirational and best-known scientists.
“It was a secret world that only me and my dad knew existed.”
feels that across New Zealand, in places like Northland, the Bay of
Plenty and South Auckland, there are kids who would love to discover
that world themselves.
Yet there were frustrating obstacles –
whether modern distractions, no broadband in a rural area, a primary
school curriculum lacking in hands-on technology education or just a
shortage of role models – stopping these children from following in the
path of the Auckland University nanotechnologist.
Dr Dickinson –
or Nanogirl, as she’s been better known since some creative school kids
gave her the moniker – once happened to be discussing the problem with
software engineer and Vend chief executive Vaughan Rowsell, who himself
also had a low-decile but high-tech upbringing.
That conversation
eventually inspired the creation of OMG Tech! – a charity that will
connect as many Kiwi kids as possible with technology and top scientists
like herself.
Today, the landscape of tech in education looks a scattered one, much like Dr Dickinson’s old family kitchen.
Kiwibots New Zealand, which is almost Auckland-based; there’s Code Club
Aotearoa, who do coding, and there are lots of other little pockets of
stuff,” she said.
“What we want to do is to create a national programme, specifically concentrating on rural regions, as well as city centres.”

Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, sets fire to chemicals in her hand as part of her show called the Extravaganza of Explosions during an Auckland Arts Festival preview. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, sets
fire to chemicals in her hand as part of her show called the
Extravaganza of Explosions during an Auckland Arts Festival preview.
Photo / Jason Oxenham
Dr Dickinson spent today working with kids in Rotorua, ahead of the charity’s official launch in Auckland on Wednesday.
getting kids hooked on science and tech generally, it will have the
strategic targets of reaching those pupils between the ages of eight and
11 – the period that matters most when plotting future career courses –
and especially girls and Maori and Pasifika children.
reflects the present shortage of women and Maori and Pasifika people in
STEM (science, engineering, maths or technology), which itself as a
tertiary level subject has long taken a back-seat to social science and
The urgent case for more of these tech-savvy people
in our country is straight-forward: we’re going to need them in the
future to tackle and solve our biggest problems, whatever they might be.
And our next top engineers and technologists don’t have to be only those earning top grades in Year 7 or 8 at the moment.
are four learning styles, and one of them is kinesthetic – that’s more
or less hands-on; you learn by building, breaking, doing – and those
aren’t the kids who necessarily do very well academically at school,” Dr
Dickinson said.
“It’s implied that they’re failures, but
actually, they are successful in a different way – and our charity wants
to make sure that kids know that they’re successful, even if their exam
grades say they’re not.”
Over the next three years, Dr Dickinson and her team aim to host a different workshop in a new place every few weeks.
idea is that we come to you – but our bigger motive is actually not
just to tech the kids, but educate the teachers and empower them to have
confidence in teaching something that can be quite daunting,” she said.
“We want to make sure they are able to embrace the technology, and we can help build their competence on how to teach with it.”
For educators, there’s a specially designed open-source curriculum to help them; but for kids, this isn’t boring stuff.
think of being able to programme your own robot and race it against
your classmates’ bots, or coding your very own computer game and playing
it within an hour.
Less specialised, but probably even more fun,
is the “breaker space”, where you’re given your own screwdriver and
hammer, then set loose on all sorts of electronics to see what’s inside
“We also bring a few 3D printers along with us. While we
always get asked, can you make a gun, we make things that are more
useful for them and help them to see the potential of how 3D printing
can be really helpful.”
A big part of the work was encouraging
children to question how things work – something Dr Dickinson hoped
could foster more trust from society in science.
This was
crucial, especially in light of a recent study worryingly showing that
only 49 per cent of Kiwis believed climate change was really happening,
despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it indeed is.
lot of the anti-science stuff has just been from people not knowing
where to source good information from – we definitely need to encourage
kids to ask good questions, and if nobody knows the answer, how do you
find the answer from a good reliable source?”
Getting more women
in science was also personal priority for Dr Dickinson, who still
managed to be shocked by a new L’Oreal Foundation survey revealing 67
per cent of European respondents – and 93 per cent of Chinese
respondents – didn’t think women were cut out to be top scientists.
“It’s so depressing. This is just why we are trying to expose children to real scientists and computer scientists.”

Over the next three years, Dr Dickinson and her team aim to host a different workshop in a new place every few weeks. Photo / Doug Sherring
Over the next three years, Dr Dickinson and
her team aim to host a different workshop in a new place every few
weeks. Photo / Doug Sherring
New Zealand’s first Chief Education Scientific Advisor,
Professor Stuart McNaughton, saw particular value in OMG! Tech’s effort
in preventing a second “digital divide”, in which differences could
develop between communities and their children’s access to and
engagement with highly stimulating, complex and challenging
In this space, the Government-backed National of
Curious Minds programme had already began to lay the groundwork for a
New Zealand society tuned in to knowledge and innovation.
the equity focus of OMGTech! is especially significant to prevent
disparities in engagement with these rich resources from developing, and
thereby raise school success in these subjects for all our
communities,” Professor McNaughton told the Herald.
important feature of initiatives such as this one is that we evaluate
them and have the evidence that shows us for whom the programme worked
and under what circumstances, so that we better understand how they can
contribute to meeting the national needs.”
Science and Innovation
Minister Steven Joyce said New Zealand specifically needed more
scientists, engineers and software developers to power fast-growing
high-tech industries amid a diversifying economy.
“For example, we are currently adding around 3000 high-paying ICT jobs a year.”
despite extra Government investment, and the recent launch of new ICT
Graduate Schools, we still needed many more school students to develop
an interest in STEM subjects.
“That means having more programmes
for those at school age to develop and maintain the natural curiosity
young people have in how things work and how to make things,” he said.
is great to have OMG Tech! alongside other new initiatives like the
Mindlab by Unitech and the new Unlocking Curious Minds Contestable Fund,
which is engaging more young New Zealanders with science, up and down
the country.”
For Dr Dickinson, the hope was that her charity
would prove so successful that it would effectively put itself out of
business in three years’ time.
“I’d love for us not to be needed anymore.”
that point, she joked that she might need to make her next invention a
time machine, so she could find the time to juggle that work with a
heavy academic schedule of lecturing and running the country’s only nano
medical testing laboratory.
“But it’s like anything that’s
important to you – you make time for it. This is my passion project, so
I’m willing to sacrifice my sleep and my social life.”
Just like
the little girl who grew up to be super-scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson,
she believed, there would always be little Nanogirls and Nanoboys at
junk-covered dining tables in Kiwi homes, just waiting to solder and
tinker a way into their own secret worlds.

Michelle Dickinson aka Nano Girl. Photo / Paul Petch
Michelle Dickinson aka Nano Girl. Photo / Paul Petch

Dr Dickinson’s ways to get your kids hooked on tech

1) Sign up for hour of code, a free one hour online lesson in coding for all ages. Visit:
Design your next invention using tinkercad. Visit
then print it using your local 3D printer at
3) Get your kids to code their own computer game using a simple drop and drag sequence at Scratch. Visit
4) Open up old electronics and let your kids discover circuit boards and microchips.
Run a fridge magnet in the same direction along a screwdriver a few
times to magnetise it. Show it works by trying to pick up a screw before
and after the magnetisation.

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