Nanogirl, Dr. Dickinson on Science for Future Generations
Hong Kong/ Ohana/ Family

Nanogirl, Dr. Michelle Dickinson on Science Learning for the Future

Dr Michelle Dickinson 4

Electric sparks, magnets, and bubbles — these are just a few delightful elements making appearances at Croucher Science Week 2023, a free science-learning festival that aims to spark inspiration and curiosity amongst children of all ages. Encompassing a series of online events, live demonstrations, theatre performances, and digital as well as face-to-face workshops, this annual educational fiesta is one that presents the wonders of science in playful, interactive, and accessible ways.

Speaking to the original Nanogirl, Dr. Michelle Dickinson, we set out to uncover the know-how and creativity that goes into sharing scientific engineering knowledge with flair fit for the stage at her “Engineering Magic!” show during this year’s rousing Croucher Science Week.

Nanogirl, Dr. Michelle Dickinson on Science Learning for the Future

For those of us who don’t know, could you please introduce Nanogirl to our readers?

Nanogirl is a science-savvy female superhero who uses her STEM “superpowers” to find her way through life’s challenges. She started out as a character that I created when I was visiting schools as an Engineering professor — but she has since gone on to have a life of her own, engaging hundreds of thousands of young people around the world!

Nanogirl is the main character in the work we produce at Nanogirl Labs, the edutainment and learning technology company co-founded by Joe Davis and myself in New Zealand in 2016. We are on a mission to make world-class STEM education available to everyone, everywhere. Our team of qualified scientists and expert science communicators deliver a wide range of shows, from large-scale theatre shows to in-school programmes, science street performances, and online livestream events.

We are delighted to participate in Croucher Science Week 2023. The event aims to raise science literacy and bridge the gap between scientists and the younger generation, which is in line with our mission. This year, we are facilitating “Engineering Magic!,” a live science show taking place at Hong Kong Science Museum, and a series of livestream events enabling audiences to engage directly with real-life scientists, and even carry out some experiments at home alongside these brilliant researchers.

Nanogirl, Dr. Michelle Dickinson on Science Learning for the Future

How did you first get involved in learning science? How was that journey like?

I was always interested in science, but I just never knew it. I was not very good at school in general, and science was not a subject that I was particularly good at.

I [mostly] learned my love of science and engineering alongside my dad. When I was eight, he started training to be an avionics technician in the Air Force, and our dining table was covered with his books and tools for months. When I sat down and asked questions, he chose to encourage me rather than send me away.

Ultimately, I went on to achieve a PhD in Engineering, specialising in nanotechnology. I really believe that those first experiences sitting in the kitchen with Dad — and his encouragement — are what started me on my journey.

Nanogirl, Dr. Michelle Dickinson on Science Learning for the Future

What are some differences in science learning in Hong Kong versus in New Zealand? How do children in Hong Kong typically first get in touch with learning science?

In Hong Kong, children typically first get in touch with science in kindergarten, where they can acquire knowledge about the physical world and basic scientific concepts. Some children also get introduced to science through activities hosted by different organizations, or by watching videos at home.

As children enter primary school, they mainly learn science concepts in the subject of General Studies, since science is not a core subject. While many schools use exams to evaluate how much students have learnt, existing STEM teaching materials formulated by the government are limited. So, science learning experiences offered by external organizations have become an additional way for children to gain more hands-on science experience outside of the classroom.

In New Zealand, science learning starts a bit later in a student’s life. Part of our work in New Zealand is to support primary teachers in bringing STEM concepts to life in the classroom earlier, building teachers’ confidence and giving them the tools and resources they need.

What sort of learning resources are there for students who want to pursue the sciences further?

There is an abundance of online resources that can increase children’s exposure to scientific topics and deepen their knowledge. Videos are especially helpful for students who are visual and auditory learners, while science-related online interactive games, such as simulations of natural theories and tests on scientific knowledge, can help children ground their knowledge in a fun way. Nanogirl’s videos, experiments, and podcasts are a great place to start!

Nanogirl, Dr. Michelle Dickinson on Science Learning for the Future

What inspired you to merge science and live performances/theatre?

My career before Nanogirl Labs saw me work both in industry — for companies like Apple and SpaceX — and as an academic. In both of those worlds I saw how a lack of diversity can stifle innovation. For me, science should be open, transparent, and approachable; a topic of conversation over the dinner table, not just something for the lab.

At Nanogirl Labs, we understand the incredible power of storytelling, particularly when combined with accessible hands-on experiences. Live theatre is such a powerful medium, and a natural way for us to create amazing experiences and introduce children to the world of STEM. We first started creating theatre as part of a project with the Auckland Arts Festival back in New Zealand, and now we have a full-time team of producers and science communicators working around the world!

How do you design your shows? What’s the process like, and how do the scientific lessons fit into it?

That’s a great question! Creating a Nanogirl show is about bringing together a scientific concept, some brilliant experiments, and a great story that children will love. Our show writing process is a collaboration between myself, Joe, and Gareth Baston. We each bring such different experiences and perspectives — it’s a genuine team effort.

The key is to make sure that all three elements — the idea, the experiments, and the story — are all there. Sometimes that takes a bit of trial and error, [but] we’ve had some great fun in our workshop creating new demonstrations and experiments!

Nanogirl, Dr. Michelle Dickinson on Science Learning for the Future

What do you hope to see in the realm of science learning for today’s younger generation, and for future generations?

Technology is moving so fast, and I hope that today’s young generation and those that follow will see the opportunity in that — and that the world needs their talents in these fields to solve some of the big problems we’re facing. Children can be creators of technology, not just consumers, and we need their creativity to help drive STEM forward.

Things are better than they were, at least in some parts of the world, but I really do hope that society can continue to break down the pervasive gender stereotypes around jobs in science and technology, encouraging more females to dig deeper in the science learning journey and consider pursuing a career in the field.

What’s in store for the future of Nanogirl?

The future of Nanogirl is bright and exciting! The world is opening up once again for live events, and we are delighted to be bringing Nanogirl Live! to audiences around the world. We’re also continuing our work online, with some incredibly exciting projects in the pipeline!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Book your tickets to Engineering Magic here and join other Croucher Science Week 2023 events here.

You can keep up with Nanogirl at @nanogirllabs.

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