Playing on purpose: Lessons with Nanogirl

Toyota Believe logoWhat do you get when you cross a nano technologist with a world tour that’s been cancelled due to a global pandemic? A unique opportunity to teach kids all about science at home!

Parenting Place recently had the privilege of chatting with Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, whose enthusiasm for learning – especially all things science and engineering – is so contagious that we just can’t stop talking about it! Not only is Michelle clearly a very clever nano technologist, she’s also a brilliant communicator – a valuable skillset for helping a nation grapple with the unprecedented events of COVID-19. So much so, Nanogirl even found herself on the phone to the Prime Minister – answering the call to help young New Zealanders make sense of what they can do to prevent the spread of a virus. If your child suddenly showed a keen interest in handwashing and passionately explained to anyone who’d listen how soap can repel pepper (germs), it’s highly likely they’ve come into contact with Nanogirl.

Show us your superpowers

Nano technology is all about tiny things you can’t see. Michelle worked in the field for years before redirecting her career to pursue her passion – inspiring and empowering kids to engage with science – to build superpowers through science, in fact. While science was never Michelle’s strong suit at school, she was always a tinkerer at heart – an experimental scientist, trying things out with her dad in his shed. Tinkering lays a foundation for the superhero abilities Michelle is passionate all Kiwi kids have the opportunity to develop themselves.

The superhero skills Michelle is such an advocate for are basically learning how to make things work and then how to make things work even better. How do we learn about this? We tinker. Sadly, we’re the last generation to really have hands-on access to screws. As kids, we could grab a screwdriver and unscrew something, with our without permission, thus discovering the wonder of circuits and componentry within Dad’s transistor radio. Not so our kids. Technology is now all optically bonded, which means our kids can’t look inside (with the exception of expensive and untimely ‘iPhone vs concrete’ incidents). “They’ve lost that ability to figure out how things work and tinker with them and fix them,” explains Michelle.

Play is powerful and fun is key

How do we motivate kids to pursue a greater understanding of technology and science? Step in STEM learning. STEM is a relatively new phrase to represent how Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths all come together to make things work. It’s basically a collective term for discovering and tinkering, reiterates Michelle. When we get our kids dabbling in STEM learning (or STEAM, with the inclusion of Arts), we’re encouraging them to be creators, rather than just consumers of technology. And it’s fun! Unlike exams and tests, STEM learning empowers kids to keep going with a project or experiment because it doesn’t matter if you get something wrong – that’s just part of the process of discovery.

Michelle’s research for her book No.8 Re-charged (written with David Downs) led her to the discovery that most of the world’s top entrepreneurs all shared a childhood commonality. “Almost 100% have said ‘I wasn’t very good at school, but the thing I built with my dad in my shed…’ Peter Beck talks about how he built Rocket Lab and it’s from his 11-year-old boy self in his shed, with his dad, building little rockets.”

Free from the pressure of ‘failure’, tinkering teaches kids about how things work and how to make them better, and motivates them to keep going until they figure it out an improvement or make a new discovery. What’s more, Michelle sincerely believes that amongst today’s world-changing adults, you can find a shared reference back to time with their families, just playing and learning. This experience has shaped who they are from a very young age. Play is powerful stuff!

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Time to tinker

Michelle believes in the magic of storytelling, especially the power of story to reinforce learning, hence the development of Nanogirl’s live theatre shows. Excitingly, Michelle had plans to take the show international this year. Not so excitingly, these plans were grounded due to COVID-19. Michelle’s not one to sit around watching Netflix though. With her team, she pivoted the business and created something brand new during lockdown – nanogirlslab.com. That in itself is inspirational. Taking a look at what one has in their hands, thinking about the value and how it can be shared during a nationwide lockdown: genius! Realising that science and technology would likely be the first thing to go in the context of distance learning, due to the perceived practical challenges of science experiments, Michelle set about providing a learning service to excite kids and parents alike. It’s a total win-win. A subscription to Nanogirl’s Lab provides kids with meaningful guided activities that they can work on independently, and parents with all the resources they need (cheat sheets included!) to play a supervisory role – from a distance, while they’re trying to work through the 100 other things on their to-do list that day.

The activities and experiments are simple, designed with the typical locked-down home environment in mind. You can create a sundial out of cardboard and sticky tape, for example, thus teaching kids about the passing of time using the sun and the rhythms of their day. With a marker pen they can note on their sundial what happens each day at whatever time. Michelle reminds us that the key is to keep projects simple but dynamic, so kids can figure out how to change and reuse things. “It doesn’t have to be complicated for your child to go on an adventure.”

And more good news, we parents don’t have to be the experts or even ‘teach’ our children. Instead, we go on a journey of discovery together, with the attitude that ‘we’re just going to try something today’.

Kids ask a lot of questions, which can be trying at times if we’re honest. Michelle offers the encouragement that questions are great learning opportunities, but we don’t need to know all the answers. Throw the questions back – ask your kids what they think. “Build their confidence in not always knowing, as this aides the journey of discovery,” says Michelle.

Where can people get resources?

Nano Girl’s Lab offers different experiments every day via a subscription service. Parents get a cheat sheet to help them oversee projects and later dig a little deeper with their kids to reinforce the learning. But lovely Nanogirl has time-poor parents in mind when she puts these activities together. Your kids will be so involved with their tinkering that you will be able to grab yourself some me-time! The activities are aimed at six- to ten-year-olds, but feedback suggests siblings are working together, with older kids helping younger ones. The younger target audience is strategic too, because Michelle believes children make up their minds about science at primary school. “If they can develop an early love for science, it will sustain them through secondary school, where science tends to get a little dry,” says Michelle.

And if all that wasn’t wonderful enough, at the moment Nanogirlslab.com offers a buy one, give one opportunity – for every family who pays for a subscription, a free subscription will be passed on to a family who is struggling financially. Plus, thanks to Toyota, this buy one, give one opportunity is also discounted by 10% – use the code DRIVINGSTEM to make the most of this amazing offer when you subscribe.

Check out the full interview with Michelle Dickinson on our Facebook page.

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About Author

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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