What was your own science education like?

I wasn't good at science at school, nor did I do very well at school. I found science fun, probably because I was getting in trouble a lot because I was the kid who would burn a pen in a Bunsen burner and see if it melted and made the smell, and get caught and get sent out – I was that kid! I wasn’t very academic, I’m not very good at the theory, so I found science difficult unless we were doing a practical, and then I was just messing around a lot. If you ask my teachers, I probably wasn’t the greatest student!

Did you have a memorable teacher who turned you around from that path?

My most memorable teacher was my English teacher, and the reason why I think that’s important now is because he was so good at communication, and I think what I’ve realised later on in life is actually being able to communicate a concept is half of the battle of making it interesting. And I really struggled with how my science teacher communicated because it was very theoretical and that wasn’t the way that I learned. So, in the long term, it taught me about how a great science lesson, I think, should be, which is how you connect and communicate with your students.

What was it that finally got you interested in science and made you choose this path?

I failed high school, I didn’t get in to university. It was working in a retail store, changing people’s footwear that made me rethink my life choices. I had applied to university and I didn’t get the academic grades because I wasn’t very academic, but somebody pointed out to me that I was a good fixer of things. I knew how to fix things that were broken around the house, because we didn’t grow up with much, so I was always used to trying to make things last longer at home ... I ended up getting into a polytechnic university and did hands-on engineering, and it was a very physical, build-things-and-fix-things degree, and I realised that I had found my space. So failing high school is how I got into my path.

So why do you think Nanogirl has become so popular with teachers, students and the public?

I think the thing that we do really differently is that we tell stories, so it’s back to that communication. We don’t just give you the science and say, ‘here’s an experiment and there’s the science’, we say, ‘here is a story, be involved with the characters, be involved with the story, oh and there’s science in there, too’. That’s cool because science is everywhere and everybody’s life has science in it, and everybody’s life has stories in it. I think starting as a storyteller versus a science person has really helped us to differentiate, and helped people engage with us.

What do you enjoy most about it?

I love those moments when people who thought they couldn’t, come up to me and say, ‘I believe I can!’ That’s from kids saying ‘I didn’t think I was good at science but now I’ve seen it in a way I can’, through to parents saying ‘I wasn’t confident because I didn’t do well at science at school, but now I see I can help my kids to learn and not be afraid of it because it is just about trying stuff.’ It’s why we get up everyday, it’s so humbling, and it’s incredible. When people suddenly realise for the first time in their life that they can, they want to tell you and so we’re really lucky that people come up to us all the time and tell us their life stories about how things have changed.

You’ve said you never let stereotypes scare you. We’re still hearing though, that female students out there do feel held back or think science isn’t a female thing. What advice would you give to make them feel more confident?

Confidence is a really hard thing to train in young people, or anybody! For me it’s about teaching kids about resilience, and that it’s OK that not everything is perfect and not everything is easy, and it’s OK to stumble a little bit, and if you really want it, to get back up and do it. Our education system is all around getting things right, you get the grade when you get it correct, and I’m a big promoter of failure and getting things wrong. Actually, real scientists learn most of their stuff from things that don’t work versus things that do. So I try and tell stories about how famous people in the world became successful because of their failures, not because of their successes, and actually learning from your failures is really important to being successful. So, when I have girls come to me - I get it all the time - I have hundreds of messages a day from young women or young girls saying ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I’ve quit because dot dot dot’. And I’m like, ‘OK, how do we turn this around to be a learning experience so you’re stronger next time?’ And I think fear of failure is really prevalent, and research shows it’s much more prevalent in girls than boys, so I think we really need to turn it around and make kids understand that failure is part of success, and it’s part of a learning period, so being resilient so you can fail and pick yourself back up, learn from it and do something else is really important. I think we really need to address that failure around our girls and make sure that they know its OK.

Is there something that the Government could do that would help?

I have a lot of conversations with the Government around how we assess, especially in examinations where it’s very easy to grade something that is right or wrong, and how do we grade critical thinking? Even if the answer is perhaps not correct, how do we make sure that that thought process can also be graded? I think that’s really important, so that’s what I constantly go on about … it’s not about the final answer, it’s about how did the student get there that’s important.

What is your hope for the place and role of science in the curriculum?

My hope is that we don’t just call it science – I hate science being a silo, as if it’s this one thing that you do … it’s part of cooking, it’s part of how we understand the world, it’s part of how we interpret things that are written around us, so I would like to see science incorporated into every subject. We say subjects because everything’s siloed! With siloing things, it means once students have a bad experience of science in a classroom or in a lab, they tend to be turned off it for life and don't realise that there are many different forms of science and that they’re going to have to make decisions in life based on scientific things. So, for me it’s making sure that it’s not one siloed thing that only a science teacher teaches in a science lab.

What do you think of STEM or STEAM? It sounds like you’d be supportive of that integrated approach.

I love an integrated approach! The challenge I think we have is we don’t have enough resources to help teachers understand what this new thing is. The challenge with STEAM is it’s changing so quickly – technology, robotics, drones, coding – the content is changing really quickly and I don’t think we have the resources for our teachers to be able to keep up and be able to educate others on what is an ever-changing system. I think some schools are doing STEAM amazingly, or trying to, but they tend to revolve around one core teacher who is leading that, versus having lots and lots of trained teachers who are consistently being upskilled.

Is there any one aspect you think schools should be focusing more on?

I would love to see more concentration on what we call the softer skills – I hate that word, but you know, teaching resilience and critical thinking, and leadership and teamwork and the things we don’t assess. Things like how well you work in a group are part of entering the workplace and yet not something you are assessed on very well in schools. I think some of those softer skills around how we work together as humans, with each other, empathy, I would love to see more of that.

Anecdotally, scepticism of science seems to be on the rise. Why do you think that’s happening and how can we combat this in students while they’re still in school?

The way we consume our media has changed a lot. I used to go to an encyclopedia to look up a definition, now I can Google anything and pretty much find the answer I want for any topic. It’s [about] going back to that critical thinking that I think is important to teach our kids – how do you look at something and critically think about it and decide whether the source is a reliable source or not? I think the challenge is, especially with social media, you see a fact posted as a meme and you assume it’s true. I think celebrities are pushing a lot of products right now and claiming things, and Gwyneth Paltrow is one of my favourites for what I think is fake science that she’s selling. We hold these people up with esteem, I think it’s easy to believe that what they’re saying is true. I think [unless] we ask students to take the data and figure out where its source came from and think about it, it’s just going to keep going the way that it’s going.

What is it that keeps you going in all of your endeavours?

Science and technology are the future, they’re how we’re going to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems, and I think to do that we need a diverse group of people that have come from different backgrounds and different experiences to help problem solve that. I still don’t see the diversity that I wish to see in science, meaning that I don’t think we’re solving necessarily the problems in the best way that we can. So, what drives me is trying to create opportunities for different groups of people to become the problem solvers of the world. And what drives me is every day, we see the results from what we’re doing, and we see kids from very different backgrounds entering science through our programs and that gives me hope that we can create a more diverse scientific community.


Pop quiz

My favourite ever science experiment is…

We do this liquid nitrogen ping-pong ball explosion which is ridiculous! We basically explode about 2000 ping pong balls out of a metal drum using liquid nitrogen and it is ridiculous, and you basically get snowed on by ping-pong balls with a massive explosion, so that’s probably my favourite one!

Three people, alive or dead, whom I’d like to invite to dinner are…

Orpheus Beaumont, she was the inventor of the modern life jacket in Dunedin – she’s the best! Valentina Tereshkova, she was the first woman in space, Soviet woman: she had no qualifications, she left school at 16, worked in a textile factory and ended up being the first woman in space! And Maya Angelou, who is one of my favourite poets and civil rights movement leaders.

The best advice I’ve ever received is…

I remember when I was young, I complained about something, I said ‘somebody should do something about that!’ And somebody turned around to me and said ‘you are somebody!’ And ever since then, I’ve realised that I am somebody, and rather than wait for other people to make changes that I think need to be changed, now I’m just the person who says, ‘what can I do today to help make that change?’