Mind Lab's Frances Valintine on bridging the gender gap and the fear factor

Inside Auckland's Mind Lab, which through tech workshops is nurturing the next generation of makers, doers, inventors and creators, and upskilling teachers and educators.

One thing Frances Valintine noticed among students at Media Design School, which she co-founded more than a decade ago, was that many were lacking in maths and physics skills. They weren't taking  those subjects in high school and it was hurting them later on. 

So, unsurprisingly, getting kids young is a key focus at her new venture, The Mind Lab in Newmarket, Auckland. Committed to nurturing the next generation of makers, doers, inventors and creators, and upskilling teachers and educators, it's a colourful and hands-on lab that runs a number of workshops for children and adults alike.

mind lab frances valintine idealog

The Mind Lab can house up to 100 at a time, and uses only open source and free software so students can easily access the same resources at home.

​Valintine believes we've lost some of our number eight wire mojo as a country – and that it's going to take work to get our curriculum up to date and youngsters on the road to tech-oriented careers. For starters, teachers need upskilling, technology needs to be extracted from the 'ICT' pigeonhole and parents need to stop short-selling their daughters. 

On dragging families and schools into the 21st century

The key reason I established the Mind Lab is really around taking away the fear factor of technology. There's a lot of debate around whether technology in education is a good thing or bad thing. The way I see it is it's just the current way of learning. We can't avoid the fact our kids are growing up in this very digital world.

We have these debates with parents who say 'there's nothing wrong with pen and paper, I grew up with it and it was fine'. When we turn around and say 'when was the last time you used pen and paper?' then they realise what they're saying. The fastest most efficient way of working is on a computer.

Still the majority of our schools have no computer in schools or it's dedicated to an ICT lab. We've got to get away from this idea that computing is technology, it's lots of other things. 

Teachers particularly can understand by coming through the Mind Lab that this is not scary, they don't need to know all of it, they just need to know how they can implement new ways of learning.

Who's using the Mind Lab?

The Mind Lab has multiple different audiences. School groups come as entire classes or entire schools sometimes - literally buses will come in and bring large numbers of students over a few days. Then we have after school classes which are specific to a particular part of the curriculum and those classes may be as few as six in a class. 

Then we have professional development classes for teachers - they vary from small management groups right through to very large all staff groups, anything from five teachers up to 50 teachers at a time. And then we have our school holiday programmes. 

It's quite varied but they all have the same key objective, which is around bridging that gap between a digital child who's grown up very much in a technology age and a school system which is just scrambling to catch up. And it's not the fault of the school system at all, it's just purely how quickly technology has moved.

The Mind Lab  is all about not using technology as a consumer device, it is always as an enabler for exciting kids about other things. For example if they are using robotics, the technology piece would be the robotics themselves, but also they can learn to code robots, they can learn to do certain commands, they're actually programming but not thinking about programming - it's just a way of making the robot do what they want it to do. 

On the other side we look at things like stop motion animation. They might be doing stop motion but they're actually doing storytelling development and team building. Again, the technology is around making the story come together as an animation but they have to do all the creative development first. 

Even within the science curriculum it's not kids learning through having a teacher at the front of the class, the teacher works more as a facilitator, as a coach. The students, be they adult or child, work collaboratively in project groups. What they'll do is hands-on learning, there's no written notes, no overhead projector, it is literally sitting down and problem solving.

mind lab frances valintine idealog

On encouraging diversity in technology

Although a lot of our programmes here are designed for the private student, our school groups coming through are cross-subsidised by the business. They're not funded by the government but we allow students to come here for six dollars an hour so it puts it into the same ballpark as the majority of other out-of-classroom type activities. We do get schools coming from decile  one all the way to decile 10 and there is no obstacle between those. 

There is still very much a gender divide, what mothers think girls should do and boys should do. That came as a bit of a shock to me - that there would be parents who would say 'my daughter would not be interested in robotics because she's a girl'. I'd say 'well robotics, you can do anything with robotics - it's no different than building with Lego or Meccano, it just means you can put a motor on it and do some really cool things, why would they not be interested in that?'

The creative subjects we do here are very well balanced, in film, animation, photography, graphic design, 3D modelling  and printing, between males and females. As soon as we get into coding, programming, game development, science technology, gesture-based computing, electronics, robotics, I would say it's probably 80 percent male.

The females who do come through those programmes almost always have parents in the industry who see the importance of it, someone who's paving the way for them and championing the cause. You can see where the influence comes from. So it's not that mums are deliberately trying to be an obstacle, it's just purely their lack of knowledge of opportunities - and salaries, the kinds of contributions [their children] can make in those fields. 

In countries like China and India between 30 and 40 percent of all graduates are coming out of science and technology, in New Zealand it's about 15 percent, and of those somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of those are male.

mind lab frances valintine idealog

On integrating technology into the curriculum

If you look at the schooling system, primary and intermediate particularly, most teachers are generic, which they have to be - we can't afford to have specialists in every subject - but that may mean a child may not be exposed to some science and technology fields until they're 12 or 13. From this year science is now optional at high schools so we're actually going against the global trend, where science is becoming more important. I think it's going to have a massive impact on our country.

A lot of teachers have been in the industry 20-30 years. The world has completely changed in that time and best practice teaching now is very different.

The numeracy and literacy focus we've had in New Zealand the last few years has been very strong and it's very important but we don't want that at the detriment of other subjects. If you look at the school system in a broader sense, science is really the only subject in the curriculum that's open-ended . By default, by definition, it's the pursuit of something new - it's where you innovate and discover and observe and test and fail and test again and fix. I t builds on a lot of skills in terms of resilience and that ability to understand - it doesn't always work the first time and that's where innovation really stems from

I  think it's crucial we really do develop our teachers to understand the full potential of what they can teach in the classroom, get away from the single subject mentality of ICT and look at it across the full spectrum - how would you teach English using technology? That could be writing scripts and doing stop motion, or it could be around some kind of scientific evaluation , learning to write an observation through the use of English language, and understanding formal scientific language vs just informal fiction writing. 

There is no subject that can be exempt from the appropriate use of technology and that may be a camera or a smartphone or a tablet, not necessarily a desktop computer. It could be doing sports using GPS navigation on scavenger hunts.

The problem with teaching at the moment is the majority of schools have got no way of rewarding teachers who put the extra effort in.

mind lab frances valintine idealog

On breeding a generation of lazy consumers

I think there's the perception in New Zealand that we're leaders, and innovators, and if you look back in recent years we're not very good at innovating at all - we've actually slowed down significantly. I think the idea that kids are still exploring and experimenting and tinkering has actually gone.

For example an iPad, you can't get in, you can't see how it works, it is designed to be really easy. Every parent who has a two-year-old who plays with an iPad tells me their child is talented and gifted and I turn to them and say 'actually an iPad has one button, you don't need to speak to it or type, you only need to swipe your finger, it is designed to be the most intuitive platform ever. So yes, your child certainly understands the use of the device - they're not a genius'.

If we'd had the same devices as children it would have been exactly the same thing. What we had was much more complicated, if you were trying to make a computer work, you had to get behind it, pull it apart, figure out how to download operating systems, you had to sit there on dial up and actually understand how drivers work. T here was a lot of understanding of the technology that meant you could use it far more effectively than a child today who doesn't have that ability to tinker.

There is this expectation that New Zealand is up there with the very best in the world and that we are this great creative country, still number eight wire kind of innovators, I just don't see that. I see quite the opposite, I see that we are becoming more and more consumers because we have imports, we're in a throwaway consumer society. If you go back to kids who grew up in the 70s or 80s or even earlier, they were in the back shed building stuff and creating and pulling apart washing machines. B ecause we don't have that now, and those kids focus their time around screens, we have to get them thinking about how things actually work. That is a massive challenge.

mind lab frances valintine idealog

What lies ahead

There is so much going on, it's hard to say what we'll look like in a year's time. There's certainly a lot of demand around the country to have similar labs in other locations and it's something we're talking to various organisations and councils about.

The teaching side is very important to me and I think that's something we'll grow significantly in the next little while, where a lot more teachers will come through developing their skills, with or without their classes. That's probably our biggest growth area and interest is from right across the country, all deciles, gifted programmes through to kids who are struggling. 

If we're going to have a buoyant innovative economy we need people in the right jobs. At the moment a lot of the jobs are jobs that we're relying on internationals to come in for - jobs we should be taking because they are well paid, exciting, dynamic, export focused. 

That's where I see the Mind Lab really has the ability to kickstart some of that excitement around kids at a young age taking a different pathway into these subjects. It doesn't take that long - a 10-year-old today is making high school subject choices very soon, and then university decisions not long after, and we just want to make sure they are well informed about the possibility of all these careers and how they impact on their future lives. 

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