Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Michelle Dickinson (AKA Nanogirl) on changing kids' attitudes towards science and technology

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing heaps of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. For this edition, Idealog publisher-at-large Vincent Heeringa speaks with scientist, educator and philantropist, Michelle Dickinson.

Vincent Heeringa: I have a sense that you weren't born Nanogirl.

Michelle Dickinson: It is not my official name, no. It is now my trademarked name. It's an interesting story. I went by Dr Michelle Dickinson and I was going into schools talking about nanotechnology which is what my research focuses around. Kids find it really hard to talk about the word nanotechnology. It was a really long word and while I was trying to explain the science of the very small I said, "We can just nickname it nano because it's small and nano means small." They said, "Okay." They stuck with that. Then I was talking about how I'd always dreamed of being a superhero and how I wanted nanotechnology to do that. They said, "Obviously your superhero name would be Nanogirl. That makes sense." That sort of stuck.

Did they suggest a cape?

Everybody suggests a cape. I'm still being asked why I don't wear a cape day to day. That sort of stuck. The Nanogirl concept allowed the superhero excitement but also the word ‘nanotechnology’ to be brought into their vocabulary at a very young age. It stuck with the school kids and then somehow it just stuck permanently. Here is is.

That's fantastic. What is the interest in kids in schools and science because you also have a career as a scientist, right?

I have a career as a scientist and a hobby running a national charity called OMGTech which is all about teaching kids science and digital technologies. We teach them coding and robotics and science and nano-tech and all of those things. My passion comes around being an educator and being a university educator. I was looking around in the classroom and I always struggle in not seeing diversity in the tech space and not seeing diversity in the engineering space where I was teaching. I wanted to figure out where is that coming from? Why are there more males studying engineering than females and there always have been. Is this because we don't encourage it in schools? Is it just nature and nurture and the way we're designed to be? What I did was I went back in the school systems and said, "How do you teach science?"

I found the girls were less engaged with the way we teach science when it gets to high school which is very theoretical and girls are interested in kinesthetic and hands on learning. I thought, can we encourage girls to study more science if we provide it in a different format? If it's hands on, if it's applied, if we can show them how they can solve world problems with it, and the answer seems to be yes. I have a passion around making sure that we have more business people and industry in the tech space. For me that stems from having a good foundation of introducing science concepts at a very young age that are applicable to all.

Is that the same for mathematics and technology as well? Similar kind of dynamic?

Very much so. I blame the media slightly because if you think about any media ...

It's always the media isn't it?

Well, it's how our kids get exposed to things. I can't name any female prominent scientists or engineers who are on our TV for example. Whereas Nigel Latta does a great job in New Zealand. We've got David Attenborough, we've got the Myth Busters Adam and Jamie, Neil deGrasse Tyson, but they're all male characters and what I think is maybe our girls don't grow up thinking they can be what they can't see. Part of that is media.

Also, we teach mathematics in a really dry way. It's not that exciting but mathematics is so useful for everything around what we do in day to day life and so I'd love our curriculum to be more applied so that kids can get more excited about seeing mathematics and tech. Teaching coding is quite dull, let's be honest, but teaching girls how to build fan-based websites or Harry Potter websites using coding is very different and much more applied. Kids will learn the theory of stuff to build the things they want to build. My passion is how do you sexy up some of those subjects in school so that kids can see how they're applied and why they're useful to be learned.

Is that the content of OMGTech? The series that you do? Tell us about that and how does it work?

OMGTech is a national charity co-founded by myself and Vaughan Rowsell who was the CEO of Vend. We are tech nuts who came from backgrounds that perhaps weren't as privileged as some others and so we've been really lucky in that tech was introduced into our lives. We were able to teach ourselves it but that exposure to tech has helped us to sort of get into the tech field and be experts in the tech field and what we wanted to do is create a charity that allowed all children in New Zealand to do it. Now we specialize in making sure low decile kids and kids in a rural area have equal access to this technology, than our kids in our cities.

Also, we don't run our charity unless there are 50 percent girls there. It's our mandate. I put that in pretty strongly. We didn't want anybody to feel like a minority in this group. A lot of girls do join a robotics club and say, "Oh I'm the only girl. I don't want to go anymore." We created a charity that educates all around these future technologies. It teaches the kids to code and build robots and all of those things. There are no minority groups there. The girls and the boys come together. What's good is that because we say our charity can't run unless there are fifty percent girls there, all the boys that sign up strait away know that they can't go unless they find a girl to come with them. It's encouraged teamwork with diversity at the forefront.

This idea of getting science sexy. You're not the first to do it. It's hard work and has it worked I suppose is the question. What kind of evidence I suppose. You're a scientist. You like evidence.

Great question. I currently am doing an academic study around what we call impact because when a scientist goes into a school and they feel better about themselves saying, "Oh, I taught these kids." The question is, did that have any impact on the kids? Was that a long-term impact? I have a study going on right now in conjunction with both the University of Auckland and the University of Wellington Victoria studying the impact of some of the things we do at OMGTech. If we come in and teach you this, does that change your pathway? We don't have much evidence-based research around that. A lot of it is anecdotal. I can give you anecdotal evidence just by showing you my email inbox of parents and kids who say.

They just adore it.

Kids who have now changed their options at school because I was able to come to school and teach them about science and now their daughter is interested in science. The anecdotal evidence is great for the feel good factor, but I'm really interested in the research side of actually what do we have to invest in to help change our economy into the tech-based economy that I would love to see them use and thrive into.

What does success look like for you personally? Is it a financial outcome? Is that what gets you out of bed in the morning?

Oh no. If I was financially motivated I wouldn't be running a charity for free. No, I've never been financially motivated. For me, it's creating an ecosystem that thrives. I have a real concern that there's a big inequality divide in New Zealand and I can only see it getting bigger as the tech communities come together as robots start taking over some of our manufacturing and low skill jobs. I'm really worried that there are people who don't have a formal education who will have nowhere to go. My passion is always 'how do we reduce our inequality divide and make sure it doesn't get bigger because of tech? How do we make sure we have equal access of technology to all?' Some of that is just around education. Some of that is putting tech in libraries so people are used to being familiar with it and gaining more confidence in it. Also, that's upscaling of people, especially those in the trades that may not exist ten years from now, what are we doing as a country to make sure that they are able to upskill without having to invest money that they may not have so that they keep falling down further in the poverty line.

This is not a problem unique to New Zealand and so my sense is that you've come from another place. You've got a beautiful sort of English lilt to your voice. Are you a born New Zealander?

I was born in England and left when I was a baby. We moved to Hong Kong. I have a military father and so we lived in all sorts of countries. We moved every three years and I loved that. Then as an adult I carried on moving. I lived in America. Went to India, Japan. Loved living everywhere. You get to that age where you say, "Wow this is great." People always ask you the question when you're travelling, "Where are you from?" I never had an answer to that question because I'm mixed race. I don't have a thing. I always said I'm a global citizen. They said, "Yeah but where do you call home?" I hadn't found anywhere yet, so I went on a mission to search for home. Then I stumbled across New Zealand in 2006 and immediately I was like, “This is it”. I love New Zealand. I love the people here. I love the nature and I feel like a Kiwi. It's the only passport that I have. I'm a citizen. It was nice as an adult to choose that place called home and be proud of it rather than being born into a place and being forced to call that your home.


What is it about the New Zealandness that appeals to you? Is it a smell? Is it a feeling? Can you articulate it?
It's an aura. It's the people. It's the energy. There's a kindness in people here. We're a real community. I think being an island nation, and being relatively small compared to, I used to live in New York for example. People know people, people do stuff for people. You know that actually you can create a team around yourself and then a community around that to get things done. I love that sense of belonging to a set of people that you know each other. That two degrees of separation is amazing because you can just get stuff done. Also, there isn't that hierarchy and that class system that I saw in the UK, which I really think allows anybody to be able to do anything here.

A lot of the innovators we've spoken to have said that it feels like you can get things done in New Zealand because if you wanted to you could just find the prime minister and get hold of him, couldn't we?

Steven Joyce is very not impressed that I have his phone number because every so often I'm like, “What about this?” That is a true privilege and the ability to do that I think could only be done in places like New Zealand. I've lived in America. I couldn't have just called Obama, for example. That would never happen. That privilege I really see as a value and I appreciate that we have that ability to do stuff here, but also that diversity happens here because of that. It means that your hierarchical structure doesn't prevent anybody being able to set up a national charity and talk to our science minister or education minister about how do we create a platform that integrates this for our whole country? It's just unheard of anywhere else.

That's pretty cool. What's next? Give us a little promo. What's next on the OMGTech agenda?

OMGTech is moving into teaching teachers as well as teaching students. We have a big mandate to help. The minister of education has just introduced digital technologies for our curriculum in 2018 so we're really a strong advocate for how do we make sure our lowest schools still have teachers that can teach this sort of thing, so we have no school left behind. Also Nanogirl herself, she is going on tour around the country. I'm going to all the regions in December. I've done live shows here in Auckland and they've sold out weeks in advance and every kid has said they've loved it, blah, blah, blah. The regions have cried out to say, when is Nanogirl coming to Napier, Tauranga, New Plymouth? Well I'm coming. In December I'll be on tour bringing the live show to the nation but also bringing free educational packs for children and for teachers who want to teach science but may not have any confidence to do that, and visiting schools. I'm going to be pretty busy in December going around our country, enjoying all the sights and sounds as well as putting on a live science show.

Let's hope the sun shines.