Show Notes: Michelle Dickinson – Helping Kids Love Science

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Show Summary:

Dr Michelle Dickinson is a nanotech engineer, and a hero to many young kids in lockdown – and their parents! – through her work on Nanogirl’s Lab, which focuses on helping children fall in love with science. Recently, she’s been involved in the response to COVID-19 in New Zealand, which among other things, included running a press conference for children alongside the Prime Minister.

We’re talking today about how to explain coronavirus to kids, how to help them fall in love with science, and how the Nanogirl concept transitioned online.

Show Notes:

  • [0:42] What do you think it’s like to be experiencing this global upheaval as a child?
  • [2:00] What is your advice when parents ask how to explain this pandemic to their children?
  • [3:35] How do you foster the love of science in a young person?
  • [6:38] Are there ways we can set up our physical environment to encourage curiosity?
  • [7:36] Better to give kids ingredients than a finished product
  • [8:35] Why Michelle tells her Nanogirl audience “don’t buy anything”
  • [9:31] Michelle discusses the messy combination of politics and science
  • [12:40] How did your entire business shift to handle COVID?
  • [14:19] Michelle discusses making video content during lockdown while camping in an office with her husband
  • [17:10] What were the biggest surprises while shifting your entire business model during COVID lockdown?
  • [19:21] What’s the most exciting thing you’ve seen in nanotech lately?
  • [21:06] Is there progress that can be made with nanotech in more “home-brew” ways - or is money mandatory?

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Transcript:

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This transcript was produced in 10 minutes by AI robots in a dark cave, so there will be some errors. Have mercy on the robots.

Jimmy
Dr. Michelle Dickinson is a nanotech engineer and a hero to many young kids in lockdown – and their parents – through her work on Nanogirl’s Lab, which focuses on helping children fall in love with science. Recently, she’s been involved in the response to COVID-19 in New Zealand, which among other things included running a press conference for children alongside the Prime Minister. We’re talking today about how to explain Coronavirus to kids, how to help them fall in love with science and how the Nanogirl concept transitioned online. But first off, Michelle as adults, we get most of our information about Coronavirus from news and conversations with other adults. And I think kids usually end up relying on scraps of information that usually aren’t tailored for them. What do you think it’s like to be experiencing this, this global upheaval as a child?

Michelle
First of all, thank you for having me. And I think it’s actually potentially petrifying. And I’ve spoken to a lot of children, obviously, they communicate through our Nanogirl channels. And I get lots of letters from children who are telling me that they’re very nervous, and they’re very nervous because grownups around them are trying to protect them by not talking about it. And so because grown ups don’t really know how to explain a virus to young people, they’re choosing to try and shield their children from the existence of this virus. And then children are learning from other children in the playground or on their Minecraft visits, and actually becoming more fearful of something that isn’t being explained to them in a way that’s easy to understand. And also when you’re sharing whispers around the playground, everything gets bigger and everything gets scarier. So actually, a lot of the children we’ve been working with and have said it’s really it’s really scary because the grown ups don’t know how to talk to them. And so we’re trying to exclude them. So if you’re a parent, please please talk openly to your children.

Jimmy
Yeah, and I was gonna ask that as well. I imagine it in addition to that you probably hear from parents who are worried about how best to explain this how to explain it at all a virus or pandemic to their kids. What is the best practice there? What What advice do you give them

Michelle
So we made a whole bunch of free youtube videos to try and explain to everybody that made it family friendly or what the virus was and use, I always try and use perhaps I’m a visual learner. So we tried to use things that represented the virus the problem with invisible things, it’s really hard to imagine them so we made them into big things and showed you all the features on them and showed you you know, what a virus is how it attaches to you how this virus is different than perhaps the common cold virus. And, and why this one is we’re worried about this one. And so, you know, it’s really important and how to protect yourself so children can actually take action and control their own environment, usually environments are controlled by parents and children feel a little bit, you know, out of kilter right now because they don’t know what they can do. And so being able to wash your hands knowing you know that hugging certain types of people may be avoided right now such as elderly people, and just giving them things to do to have some control. So yeah, we put a bunch of YouTube videos up straight away. We were one of the first and to do that, and they went crazy because people were desperate for information. And we don’t expect grownups to be experts in viruses like unless you have you know, a PhD in it, then this stuff coming out is actually really complicated.

Jimmy
Zooming out from Coronavirus for a second and thinking about science generally, I think most of us know now, and this relates to what you were just saying about making things visual, we all know that forcing kids to just read textbooks is a really great way to make them hate any sort of subject. But it’s less obvious how to actually build that love of science. So moving beyond just explaining a virus to them and kind of enabling them To have that love to explore science, so how would you start building that love in them?

Michelle
Oh, I think kids are born naturally, as scientists, they’re always curious, they’re a pain in the butt, they always want to know why. And they always want to push the button further. And they always want to dig a bigger hole. And we actually we train out of them, we give them textbooks that are fixed, and they will have to start to regurgitate the same information. You take any five year old and then naturally a scientist, you give them a worm and they’ll, you know, pull it by the tail and see if it wiggles and water and can it swim and all of the other things. So they they naturally are scientists, I think we as adults, actually, through our academic education system, try and conform them to be something different, and something less curious and something more apparent, like in its regurgitation, because, you know, we have credits and systems that say, if you memorise this fact, therefore, you will suddenly be smarter than others. Because actually, it’s not about the facts. It’s about discovery. And if you look at entrepreneurs and discoveries and inventors, we get a whole bunch of stuff wrong. And that is our learning, getting it wrong. And learning from our mistakes is how we understand something well enough to know how to get it right in the long run. And sadly, school doesn’t necessarily promote those learning activities.

Jimmy
So there’s sort of a risk averseness, or a fear of failure that is, is probably a big underlying piece of turning people off experimentation.

Michelle
Very much so. And if you look at any school science exam, it says poor chemical A into chemical B, does it turn blue? You are correct. And if it turned green, you might have discovered something new, but it doesn’t matter. You can look at the points for it. And so yeah, that’s the act of discovery. And what we call deep dive learning isn’t really sort of allowed in the education system right now. It’s very right now it’s very assessment based and it’s short term assessment, so memorise something for six weeks and then move on to the next thing, forget the last thing move on to the next thing. And, but and that’s why I think, you know, your kids being able to tinker and play and discover and learn is so important because that’s actually where the real life learning comes. And, and again, for as an entrepreneur I talked to, you know, other fellow entrepreneurs and I said, where did your passion for this come from? And they always go back to their 11 year old self tinkering in the shared with their dad or their mom. And as that ignition moment that actually created a passion that was lifelong. Hey, look at Bill Gates, and he talked about tinkering and building computers. You know, you talked to rocket lab, Peter Beck, in Invercargill built a rocket with his dad in a shed when he was 11. So those are the learning things that although we don’t assess and we don’t necessarily value or probably the learnings that you take through your life.

Jimmy
And there is an element of a physical environment that ran through a lot of that, you know, you talked about the shed in the back garden, building a rocket in there is there, are this specific ways that we can set up our natural or our physical environment to encourage that curiosity? Or does it, you know, no matter what’s around, you know, even if it’s a blank room, kids are going to be curious about it?

Michelle
a kid’s gonna be curious and you’re needing to give a kid a box and say build a car, and they would have, they will build a car out of the box. To give them much, you just need to give them a problem. And let them go off and do it. And they’ll be innovative in the way that they’ll solve that problem. So I think, you know, I think right now there’s so many things that you can buy that are already built, that we’re missing out on the ability for a child to be curious and figure things out and be creative and imagine their car. Versus here’s another matchbox item that you can buy and then just, you know, use its wheels to go around. So I think you know, sometimes less is more when it comes to children and allowing them to figure things out for themselves.

Jimmy
Yeah, not presenting them with the finished product, but actually presenting them with the ingredients to create the finished product, whatever that finished product might be.

Michelle
I’m seeing this right now, you know, I really struggle with a whole bunch of you know, STEM boxes. They’re called a science in a box or engineering in a box that you can send to your kids. But they come with exactly the right amount of pot. So already lays occur, and you just follow the instructions, you fit them together, and then you have your finished item. And I’m like, that’s not how it works. Like what you want to do is have random pieces of things in a box and be like the kids, well, what would you build from there? And we’re not, we’re still I think we’re still missing the point on a lot of these products that you think are doing well for your child. But they’re still only producing product A at the end of it, which is exactly the same as every other child’s product, and they weren’t able to sort of tinker and make their own.

Jimmy
Yeah, so if you’re looking for stuff to buy your kids to enable that curiosity, you’re not looking for a label that says STEM box, STEM pack whatever it’s just buying things that they can create stuff from.

Michelle
Oh, yeah, no, at Nanogirl we say don’t buy anything we say here’s a – go just take some rubbish and we’ll show you how to turn it into something magical. So, you know, we really promote kids being able to see things around them. That is trash. actually teach them how to turn that into something creative and useful.

Jimmy
Speaking of the world around us there is I’d say there’s lately been a much more vocal challenge to technology and to science and scientists behind that technology. And you see it some times and valid scepticism of tech, or and especially big tech, but also in reactions to vaccines, you see it people are taking cell phone towers. And, and as that happens, you see science starting to become a political issue instead of a way to test hypotheses. What do you emphasise when you’re describing science to a child to avoid it turning into something political?

Michelle
Yeah, it’s a really challenging thing, right? I mean, right now I’m getting hate mail from 5g conspiracy theorists who, when I try to explain 5g, I said, well, let’s talk about how your phone works. And they’re like, I don’t care how my phone works. I’m like, well, it’s a fundamental part of understanding how 5g works you got, I feel like we can argue about this, and you don’t understand radio waves and alike, but it’s gonna, you know. So the fundamental challenge is a lack of knowledge of how things around us work, just basic things. How does your cell phone actually send a signal? What is it powered by, you know, what is a lithium ion battery inside it? Where are we going to put those in the future? So it goes back to being able to open things up. So here’s the thing. When I was a kid, there were these things called screws. And screws were things that you could take a screwdriver to, you could open things up and look inside. And as a kid that was magical, because I felt like this was all the stuff that happened and I would open the toaster and I would open the video recorder and I would slowly learn how things work. Our generation of kids Don’t do that. Everything is optically bonded. And so they’ve got no sense of what these magical boxes are anymore. They just do. And I worry that by not understanding at a young age, what’s inside the magical box, you just become a consumer of boxes rather than a creator of new things, because you don’t know how to create these things that you’re now using every single day. And so for me, I think the fundamental thing we need to do is help kids to look inside stuff, and learn how they work and tinker a little bit. So that when it comes to somebody saying, 5G’s, whatever it’s going to do, you can go oh, but actually, I know there’s a radio transmitter in here, and I know what radio waves are. And you know, I’ve looked inside a phone and I understand that that can’t be true.

Jimmy
So it’s really that base level knowledge that then enables that it’s not trying to teach them about every single possible scenario or argument. It’s really just giving a really base-level understanding of the world around you.

Michelle
Yeah, and teaching critical thinking the challenge is the internet. So the internet is marvellous and terrible in one go. It is marvellous because it, you can access information to anything and it’s terrible because you can get the answer that you want to anything or anything, everywhere. And so how do you navigate what is pretty much everybody’s main tool of information or the internet? How do you navigate what the sources from the internet and whether or not it’s a valid source. And so that critical thinking around how science is done, why peer review is important, and where the sources for the thing that you’re reading has come from? I think is the big skill we need to teach our kids.

Jimmy
Yeah, and on a more personal and I guess, entrepreneurial level, until very recently, you had live shows booked around the world for pretty much all of 2020 which obviously, were not able to go ahead for many reasons and and from that sudden stop. You shifted from Nanogirl Labs to Nanogirl’s Lab. Can you talk through the organisational change that that name change symbolises? And what sort of timeframe you had available to do it?

Michelle
Yeah, sure. And you know, hindsight is a wonderful thing. At the time when I was under pressure, it sounded like a great name. It was a stupidest name ever. It’s very confusing. I’m very sorry. We did it in a day.

Jimmy
I thought it was clever, actually.

Michelle
Oh, thank you. Yeah. And we were a live events company. And we’ve been building for the past four years. And suddenly we’re recognised globally. So we’re, you know, about to do set up tours around the world. And obviously COVID stop there. And we had to really sit and think about what our value proposition was. And what it is that we do we believe a minor subscribers believe is we’re able to provide you with entertaining education, not just for your kids, but we’re empowering you as parents and grandparents to feel smarter. Because most adults when I say, what do you think about science, they revert back to their 13 year old self and a Bunsen burner, and usually it’s a negative experience, because it’s a dry high school experience. When I say, Well, if you’re not confident with science as an adult, how are you going to teach your kids? And they said, Oh, no, we’re not. I’m afraid that I won’t know the answers. So whether we pitch to children, we’re actually lifelong learners and we help adults and, you know, grandparents to also be on this journey with us. And so yeah, we decided that was our value proposition. And this was a time more than any that science information needed to get out there. So we built a digital platform, an online learning platform… we built a production studio we were so lucky to know. And the week before the lockdown in New Zealand, the tenants in their apartment above our office moved out and we said to our landlord, hey, can we rent this space? It’s just available and she said, Yeah, so we literally in a day, turned it into production studio, brought in camera crew rigged it out and we decided to build a content filming studio to make content enjoying what my husband and I camped in our office for the whole of lockdown to be able to make content every day, and we decided we were going to make entertaining and educational content for everybody. And we were going to be able to respond really quickly to anything new with COVID. So that we were able to say, hey, if there’s some change we can make a video so that everybody can just get free access to these videos, and then we built a digital subscription platform. And so that every day your child could have an hour’s learning with the Nanogirl programme, using only lockdown friendly materials, so any card or paper, and the card would come from a cereal box tape and scissors. And you would invent something every single day. And it’s been amazing because you know, we’re building this week, for example, is our detective week. And so you build every day you build a new part of a detective kit, and today you built a fingerprinting and detection kit. So we teach kids how to cut card to make a circle and then you put sticky tape in the middle and you take a sticky tape version of your fingerprint you seal it up, and then use a toilet roll holder as a viewing finder. And then you go in like it’s super cute and basically it teaches kids all about forensics, but they’re building every single piece of apparatus they need. Using stuff around the house yesterday, they bought a chromatography and kit. So you can tell which pen and you have by how the ink disperses using a paper towel and a bit of water because all the dye comes out in a different pattern. And so they’re able to work out who done it by who left their pen and then figure that stuff out. And it’s like a paper towel. I felt tip pen and a bit of water, but they’re out to build their own kit and we got them a little lab in a shoe box. And so yeah, we’ve been doing that which is using our skills of what we normally do in life theatre, which is take rubbish and make gigantic ridiculous science experiments out of them. And instead we’re taking rubbish and helping kids to make a little detective kits and other STEM learning things. And it’s been magical and it’s totally changed our business and you know, where it was certainly global but global in a very different way. And hopefully meeting a need of helping parents teach their kids at home because they’re, you know, around the world kids are still locked down and they’re not going to school and we spoke to teachers and they said the first thing we’re going to drop is STEM learning because it’s too hard to do without equipment. And we said any gap in a child STEM learning has the potential to stop them entering that and being competent in that. And that has a real significant impact for our future. So we want to make sure that those kids can get it. And then we made our programme free for those who can’t afford it. And if you can afford it, it was 50 bucks for the year. So yeah, new business.

Jimmy
Yeah, that’s a big change. It was anything about that, that that wasn’t expected. Obviously, you got, like you said, stage shows to camping out in a newly vacated apartment as a studio. Was it? Were there any huge surprises in there for you that you didn’t expect going in?

Michelle
Yeah, a couple. So within three weeks, we had subscribers in 78 countries around the world, which blew our minds, because, you know, we’d spent all this time just going country to country on our tour, we were like, wow, this is really global reach. And the other one was the letters we got from people applying for free subscriptions. So it became very clear to us very quickly that, there are some hidden stories around poverty and people losing jobs that are going to be significant. And we had a lot of really sad stories of families saying I want to keep my kids educated, but we’ve both lost our jobs. I don’t know how to apply for benefit. And like all of these things, please can we subscribe to so my kids can keep the education going? Some really hard stories, actually. And those are my two. And I think the surprising thing is we haven’t seen that much media around the challenge of job losses due to COVID and I’ve heard lots of personal stories around that through our channels. And yeah, going massively global so quickly was impressive.

Jimmy
And that sounds like the online version is here to stay even if everything opened up tomorrow. That sounds like this is something that you’d be sticking with.

Michelle
This is a whole I mean, we you know, we’ve been trying to build the plane while flying it but this is our new strategy like this is what this is going to be our default. The digital learning the inviting, you know, inviting a scientist into your living room and having one on one time with them. And it’s not just me, you know, there’s lots of people and characters, and we may partner with some celebrity scientists to and invite them into your living room to help you build something, you know. And so this is the future for sure. And we’re gonna partner that with some other cool digital products. We’re working, for example, with Soul Machines to talk about, you know, digital humans and mentoring you if you’re slightly older for your high school exams, we’re talking about still doing live events if they come back, and but hopefully being able to interact with our digital platform as well at the live event. And yeah, so the digital is definitely here to stay. And it really forced us to do something that we were thinking about, but what probably would have taken us two years to build to actually build an MVP in three days test it and actually people seem to like it.

Jimmy
Fantastic, and completely changing is what is the most exciting thing you’ve seen in nanotech lately, and that’s if you’ve even had time to to keep up with new science, I guess.

Michelle
Yeah, yeah. I read it every day I’m obsessed with it. Look, I’m really excited. I mean, when it comes to COVID I’m really excited because the great thing about nanotechnology and the reason why I love being in nanotechnologies is you have the ability to change the way a surface behaves. And you know, I was really so some of my creations were creating things like hydrophobic and ice phobic surfaces. So stopping water and ice sticking to things, which is really good if you’re in a ski field or if you own a boat. Okay, good. You have your boat goes faster, and you don’t have to de-ice your aeroplane in the winter. But actually, what I’m seeing right now is people tailoring surfaces with nanotech to stop the virus from sticking. And that suddenly becomes really important when we look at the medical profession and how we’re currently protecting them with basically cloth masks and plastic overalls. And you still have the ability to affect yourself if somebody touches the outside of that. I think some real interesting things are coming out of virus sort of surfaces or virus free surfaces for the medical profession to actually really help protect them and keep them safe. And they’re working on different levels. Some of them are structural, physical shapes that viruses don’t like. Some of them are using electrostatics or basically like you get a static shock on something so that they can’t come close to the fabric. And I really think that that can significantly change how the virus is affecting people. I’d love to see it for healthcare workers to start with, but in the long run, we could all perhaps be wearing clothing that resists viruses

Jimmy
And is nanotech an area where you have to have a huge budget, is it is it very much reliant on the size of the bank account or is there progress that can be made with nanotech in much smaller or more homebrew ways?

Michelle
You know, it used to be I talked about this I spent bloody years at university to finally get a lab and equipment I could do research with and then you don’t need it anymore. So yes, being a To see things visually at the nanoscale, you will need big equipment. You’ll need scanning electron microscopes, for example, because you can’t see these things with your eye. Even with light, you need electrons to see them. However, I’ve seen some great hacks. For example, you can go to the pharmacy and you can buy something called Colloidal Silver. And Colloidal Silver is basically silver nanoparticles in a solution. It’s sold as a health product. But what you can do is, have you ever had an inkjet printer where instead of replacing the cartridge, you can buy those little kits to be seen them with a syringe and you can buy some ink and you can just sort of put them into your cartridge so you don’t have to buy a new one?

Jimmy
But I’m still one of those suckers that gets ripped off that I pay more for the replacement cartridge than I did for the original printer.

Michelle
Yeah, well, you can buy these hack things and they’re just little syringes and a pot of ink and you can inject them into your cartridge but what you can do instead is take that syringe and inject it into your Colloidal Silver suck that up. And now you can print nanoparticles. Now you can put that into inkjet printer. Now, instead of buying normal a4 paper you can buy a for temporary tattoo paper. And if you put that into your printer, you can now print a silver nanoparticle temporary tattoo, which is a conductive strip. Now there’s a whole bunch of hacks online that are free and open source that allow you to turn into something really interesting to monitor, you know, different things on your body. And, and that’s where it gets fun. So I’m actually quite excited that even though I spent years at university to try and get access to these labs, there are a whole bunch of hacks right now. You can literally print out particles and sensors in your home printer for about $12. So the world is changing.

Jimmy
That’s not the biggest barrier to getting started.

Michelle
No, it’s really good. And so what I like about open source software and the ability to hack things like this is a 14 year old kids can do it in their bedroom. And this is where it gets really interesting because the old rules of how research used to have to be done is you had to go through the motions, you had to get multiple degrees. And then you had to, you know, work at a university or in a lab and you had to go through the formal process. But now you can tinker and make, and there are maker spaces and these, these hubs of places where you can actually get access to some quite technical equipment as a kid and just go and make and break things and, and the world is changing. And we’re sort of removing that elitism from research and entrepreneurship and allowing, hopefully, everybody knows they have the confidence to realise that they could be the next inventor of the next big thing.

Jimmy
And how does the pathway work for that because that’s really exciting hearing that a 14 year old with 12 bucks in their wallet can go out and start doing this stuff. But generally for wider acceptance, I imagine you still have to go through the peer review process. It still has to go through this very traditional flow. And I imagine that if you’re someone starting out from a maker standpoint, it’s really hard to be noticed or even be accepted. Do you see that as an issue? And if so, are there any ways that it’s changing or improving?

Michelle
Yeah, I think it is. I look… I mean, obviously, if you can reinvent a new vaccine for COVID, I would want you to go through the peer review process and probably have a background in how to make RNA sequences. However, we’re talking about a future and hopefully a green future, where we’re looking at more efficient ways, you know, to convert energy from renewable sources, for example, and, and you don’t need multiple degrees to do that you can tinker around with what is already out there. And, and what’s really interesting too, is that young people are much more socially conscious than I was their age. I don’t think I thought about the environment as a 14 year old, really. But now they’re very aware of that carbon footprint of where they consume things from and it’s made them want to make positive change much earlier I think then the my generation did, and so those maker spaces are great for people. To think of ways of solving these problems on their own. And the other great thing is, you know, there’s things like the young enterprise scheme and some of these other youth development and mentorship schemes that actually allow young people to mix with old entrepreneurs, and get mentorship. And actually, it’s those mixtures, they can be introduced to people who might have a bit of money around them or a bit of expertise or a bit of money, you can help take that idea global. And I think that’s, that’s really interesting. Some of these youth mentorship programmes are, are really allowing these kids to grow. And the great thing about that his kids ideas aren’t fixed. You get to this age as an adult, where you start to live in a box where you sort of know what the rules are of the world, and you sort of comply to them. Whereas young people don’t have that. And they think of things that are really different, I think, to the way that we think about them. And that diversity of thought, I think is so important for the future of the world.

Jimmy
That was Dr Michelle Dickinson, Nanogirl, helping us explain a pandemic to our kids, telling us how we can encourage a love of science, and telling the story of switching a live in-person event business to an online one in less than a week.

You can find Michelle’s website, plus the audio and show notes for this episode at minaalradio.com/nanogirl , that’s n-a-n-o-g-i-r-l

Get in touch by leaving a voicemail, or send us a message on whatsapp or signal, at +1 503 446 6013.