We caught up with Dr Michelle Dickinson (aka Nanogirl), a world-renowned nanotechnologist and educator who lives by the mantra “science is everywhere and for everyone,” constantly breaking conventions around who and what science is for.
Dickinson shares her journey as a female engineer and her dedication to inspiring future generations to embrace science, regardless of gender, race or background. Through the NanoGirl Live Science Show and her book, The Kitchen Science Cookbook, she’s made science more accessible and enjoyable than ever before.
How did your love for engineering come about?
I’ve always been curious and was the “but why?” kid growing up. I think because my family didn’t grow up with much in the way of material possessions, I was taught to fix things when they were broken so they would last a bit longer. I never knew the word engineering at the time, but I loved being able to open something up, figure out how it worked and then try to see if it could work again.
How old were you when you knew that you wanted to be an engineer and what was it that excited you most about becoming one?
Too old. I had already left school and was working in hospitality and retail when I met some people who saw my ability to fix broken things and taught me that it was a valuable skill that I could pursue with further study. It was from there that I applied to university to study engineering. I didn’t have the grades to get into university when I was in school and was lucky that there was a program for students like me to enter through a different pathway.
You use the name ‘Nanogirl’ for the science-savvy female character in your live science shows and as your own alias when you are presenting in schools. Where did that name come from?
When I was an engineering academic I spent time going to schools to talk about my research in nanotechnology and how it meant that we could build superpowers using science. The children told me that I needed a superhero name for my superpowers and it was them that came up with the name Nanogirl. I never thought it would stick!
The institutions of science and engineering have a long tradition of excluding women as practitioners. While this mentality has changed a lot in the last 20 years, there is still much work to do. What are some of the positive changes you’ve seen through the creation of Nanogirl and in debunking the attitude that science is a man’s vocation?
Sadly there is still a lot to do and while we may be progressing in the major cities, when I visit rural parts of New Zealand the stereotypes are still strong. Through our work, we have seen and been able to measure huge changes in the way that young people see themselves and the careers that they might be able to do. The bigger task is helping parents to break their perceptions as, all too often, we see that it’s actually the parents’ stereotype of what a gendered career looks like that steers their children in a certain direction.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a young female wanting to start a career in science and engineering?
Firstly, never being told what engineering was or that it was for me. Even though I was very practical and built lots of things in wood-work and metal-work at school, I was never encouraged to pursue it as a career. Secondly, I’ve often been the only female in my engineering teams which meant that I constantly had to explain that I was there in a technical capacity and not as the secretary to take notes. Being asked to make the tea for a meeting that I was leading happened more than once! I had to get over feeling lonely in my place of employment, and it’s why I am so dedicated to increasing diversity in the industry now.
You’re a big believer that science doesn’t have to be limited to the classroom—what was it that sparked you to create the Nanogirl Live Science Show? What did you feel was missing from existing science shows?
Science shows are typically a series of big experiments carried out by white men with no real-life application. While they are fun to watch, we found that children don’t retain any of the scientific concepts from the show, only how big the fireball was. We are unique in that we tell a story with a strong narrative and a female lead scientist or engineer. By using science to help solve problems in the story, we’ve found that children bond with the characters and are then motivated to think about how scientific concepts can be applied to real-life problems.
What element of your NanoGirl Live Science Show and Kitchen Science Cookbook do you believe has the biggest impression on kids in shifting their thinking that science could be for them?
Our live science shows are designed with audience participation in mind. We want children to see kids like them up on stage doing big explosive experiments. Rather than watching an adult do everything, the children leave with the impression that they could do the big science experiments too, just like the audience member they watched had done. We also built it to help parents change their perception of science which they probably kept from when they were at school. So many parents tell us that the show taught them things that they didn’t know too!
Our Kitchen Science Cookbook is designed for parents who may not be confident with science themselves. We were asked by mothers of daughters for ways to help them to teach their girls about science. When we asked them what they did at home with their children, baking came up many times. As baking involves science, engineering and maths we wanted to show parents that it’s easy to teach science at home. By using only ingredients already in the kitchen cupboard, we have parents and grandparents discover science together with the added benefit of being able to eat it at the end!
What are some of the biggest misconceptions children and parents hold that stop them from embracing science?
All scientists wear lab coats and all engineers wear hardhats.
You need to be academically smart to be a good scientist or engineer.
Science is all about test-tubes and bunsen burners.
Why do you believe it’s important to get children into science early on in life?
Research shows that children make up their mind about science by the age of 12. With 80 percent of the primary schools that we visit around New Zealand teaching very little to no science at all, I believe that we are limiting the potential careers of our children before they even know what their options are.
One of the things we admire about your work is that you are addressing some of the cultural issues surrounding science and the false idea that science is purely a Western phenomenon even though many parts of it live within Maori mythology. Can you tell us a little more about the work you are doing with Mātātoa, your bilingual science project and the results you are seeing from it?
We know that knowledge is passed down through the generations via the stories of our ancestors; yet, for some reason, Western science doesn’t seem to use or value that method very often. When I looked at the lack of diversity in the science field, especially the lack of Māori students studying science, I found that the knowledge was there but the vocabulary was different. Mātauranga Māori is often described as a ‘wisdom’ and we in the Western world have so much to learn from it. I wanted to create something that brought the worlds of Western science and Mātauranga Māori together in a bilingual show, to show students and their parents that both world views bring value and knowledge. We found from surveying our Māori students that, on average, their confidence in science was low. However, after interacting with our Mātātoa show and seeing the myths and legends that they knew well come to life with science experiments, they reported an increase in their science confidence realising that their ancestors were also scientists, adventurers and discoverers.
You starting the Mātātoa science project addresses a very important issue within New Zealand’s current education system—the fact that it is not as diverse or inclusive as it should be and comes from a very Eurocentric perspective. What role do you see private organisations playing in systemic change? Why is diversity and connection with indigenous stories and perspectives important when it comes to our curriculum?
If we want to be a world leader in the science and technology space, we need to understand that diversity of thought is crucial not only to come up with the best ideas but for also identifying some of the biggest challenges that our local and global communities face. I think that the government is working hard, but can’t be the fixer of all things which is where private organisations like ours can help. We can take bigger risks without having to worry about election cycles and we can also focus on investing in niche and underserved communities. To me, I think it’s so important to connect with our indigenous stories, as in New Zealand this is the core of who we are and how we thrive as a nation focused not just on profit, but also on our land and our people. When I talk about our work like Mātātoa around the world, I’m reminded how far New Zealand has come when it comes to bringing our indigenous knowledge and Mātauranga Māori to the table. We still have a long way to go, especially within our mainstream research institutions and universities, but I am seeing some progress. I’m not an expert and am still very much on a knowledge journey, but as a person of mixed race and culture, it was important to me that we created programs that represented New Zealand’s diverse DNA.
When it comes to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) workforce, how big is the gap between the number of young male and young females going into related careers across the developed world?
The gap is large and depends on which fields, in particular, we look at. What’s interesting to us is not the number of females that go into these careers, it’s the number that drops out within the first few years. Engineering in New Zealand, for example, loses almost half of its graduates within five years of entering the workforce, leaving us with only around 13 percent females working in the engineering sector long term. However bad this is, we are still leading the curve with the US at only nine percent and the UK a shockingly low six percent.
What are some of the issues that prevent young females from exploring and developing STEM skills?
Stereotypes are a big challenge—what children and their parents perceive a scientist or engineer looks like can really shape whether a child thinks that a certain profession is for them or not. Being exposed to STEM-related toys growing up is also really important to help children to develop skills for their future. We recently carried out research into the top-selling toys for girls and boys and it was very clear that the boys had a huge advantage as their toys incorporated design, manual construction and critical thinking skills whereas the girls' toys mostly involved holding, nurturing and dressing. While you may think that Lego can solve these problems, things have changed from our day and Lego is now gendered with the Lego for girls requiring much less building than the Lego for boys.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to pursue a career in science and engineering?
Do it! Find ways to practice it—whether that be joining a club, pulling apart your toaster or upcycling rubbish into useful items. Ask people in those fields if you can follow them around for a day—the best way to learn about the field is to go out and watch it in action.