Inspirational scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson this week launches one of her proudest inventions - a new charity that will connect our kids with technology and hands-on innovation.

It began with a little girl and a dining table full of junk.

The little girl's family might have been poor, but the assortment of bits and pieces her father would bring home and spread about the kitchen unlocked a special world few kids ever got to see.

Her father, frantically trying to teach himself aircraft avionics for a better job in the military, had surrounded himself with soldering irons, engineering textbooks and items like a ZX Spectrum computer that he hardly knew how to use.

The little girl began tinkering with the junk herself and trying to solder pieces of it together, before too many burns on her fingers forced dad to give her a tutorial.


Soon, the pair were buying broken toasters, televisions and washing machines to fix up - anything bought new was a waste of money.

"Just taking them apart and understanding how electricity was flowing through and the information was transferring ... yeah man, that's awesome," says Dr Michelle Dickinson, today one of our country's most inspirational and best-known scientists.

"It was a secret world that only me and my dad knew existed."

She feels that across New Zealand, in places like Northland, the Bay of Plenty and South Auckland, there are kids who would love to discover that world themselves.

Yet there were frustrating obstacles - whether modern distractions, no broadband in a rural area, a primary school curriculum lacking in hands-on technology education or just a shortage of role models - stopping these children from following in the path of the Auckland University nanotechnologist.

Dr Dickinson - or Nanogirl, as she's been better known since some creative school kids gave her the moniker - once happened to be discussing the problem with software engineer and Vend chief executive Vaughan Rowsell, who himself also had a low-decile but high-tech upbringing.

That conversation eventually inspired the creation of OMG Tech! - a charity that will connect as many Kiwi kids as possible with technology and top scientists like herself.

Today, the landscape of tech in education looks a scattered one, much like Dr Dickinson's old family kitchen.


"There's Kiwibots New Zealand, which is almost Auckland-based; there's Code Club Aotearoa, who do coding, and there are lots of other little pockets of stuff," she said.

"What we want to do is to create a national programme, specifically concentrating on rural regions, as well as city centres."

Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, sets fire to chemicals in her hand as part of her show called the Extravaganza of Explosions during an Auckland Arts Festival preview. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, sets fire to chemicals in her hand as part of her show called the Extravaganza of Explosions during an Auckland Arts Festival preview. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Dr Dickinson spent today working with kids in Rotorua, ahead of the charity's official launch in Auckland on Wednesday.

Beyond getting kids hooked on science and tech generally, it will have the strategic targets of reaching those pupils between the ages of eight and 11 - the period that matters most when plotting future career courses - and especially girls and Maori and Pasifika children.

This reflects the present shortage of women and Maori and Pasifika people in STEM (science, engineering, maths or technology), which itself as a tertiary level subject has long taken a back-seat to social science and humanities.

The urgent case for more of these tech-savvy people in our country is straight-forward: we're going to need them in the future to tackle and solve our biggest problems, whatever they might be.

And our next top engineers and technologists don't have to be only those earning top grades in Year 7 or 8 at the moment.

"There are four learning styles, and one of them is kinesthetic - that's more or less hands-on; you learn by building, breaking, doing - and those aren't the kids who necessarily do very well academically at school," Dr Dickinson said.

"It's implied that they're failures, but actually, they are successful in a different way - and our charity wants to make sure that kids know that they're successful, even if their exam grades say they're not."

Over the next three years, Dr Dickinson and her team aim to host a different workshop in a new place every few weeks.

"The idea is that we come to you - but our bigger motive is actually not just to tech the kids, but educate the teachers and empower them to have confidence in teaching something that can be quite daunting," she said.

"We want to make sure they are able to embrace the technology, and we can help build their competence on how to teach with it."

For educators, there's a specially designed open-source curriculum to help them; but for kids, this isn't boring stuff.

Just think of being able to programme your own robot and race it against your classmates' bots, or coding your very own computer game and playing it within an hour.

Less specialised, but probably even more fun, is the "breaker space", where you're given your own screwdriver and hammer, then set loose on all sorts of electronics to see what's inside them.

"We also bring a few 3D printers along with us. While we always get asked, can you make a gun, we make things that are more useful for them and help them to see the potential of how 3D printing can be really helpful."

A big part of the work was encouraging children to question how things work - something Dr Dickinson hoped could foster more trust from society in science.

This was crucial, especially in light of a recent study worryingly showing that only 49 per cent of Kiwis believed climate change was really happening, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it indeed is.

"A lot of the anti-science stuff has just been from people not knowing where to source good information from - we definitely need to encourage kids to ask good questions, and if nobody knows the answer, how do you find the answer from a good reliable source?"

Getting more women in science was also personal priority for Dr Dickinson, who still managed to be shocked by a new L'Oreal Foundation survey revealing 67 per cent of European respondents - and 93 per cent of Chinese respondents - didn't think women were cut out to be top scientists.

"It's so depressing. This is just why we are trying to expose children to real scientists and computer scientists."

Over the next three years, Dr Dickinson and her team aim to host a different workshop in a new place every few weeks. Photo / Doug Sherring
Over the next three years, Dr Dickinson and her team aim to host a different workshop in a new place every few weeks. Photo / Doug Sherring

New Zealand's first Chief Education Scientific Advisor, Professor Stuart McNaughton, saw particular value in OMG! Tech's effort in preventing a second "digital divide", in which differences could develop between communities and their children's access to and engagement with highly stimulating, complex and challenging technologies.

In this space, the Government-backed National of Curious Minds programme had already began to lay the groundwork for a New Zealand society tuned in to knowledge and innovation.

"But the equity focus of OMGTech! is especially significant to prevent disparities in engagement with these rich resources from developing, and thereby raise school success in these subjects for all our communities," Professor McNaughton told the Herald.

"An important feature of initiatives such as this one is that we evaluate them and have the evidence that shows us for whom the programme worked and under what circumstances, so that we better understand how they can contribute to meeting the national needs."

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said New Zealand specifically needed more scientists, engineers and software developers to power fast-growing high-tech industries amid a diversifying economy.

"For example, we are currently adding around 3000 high-paying ICT jobs a year."

But despite extra Government investment, and the recent launch of new ICT Graduate Schools, we still needed many more school students to develop an interest in STEM subjects.

"That means having more programmes for those at school age to develop and maintain the natural curiosity young people have in how things work and how to make things," he said.

"It is great to have OMG Tech! alongside other new initiatives like the Mindlab by Unitech and the new Unlocking Curious Minds Contestable Fund, which is engaging more young New Zealanders with science, up and down the country."

For Dr Dickinson, the hope was that her charity would prove so successful that it would effectively put itself out of business in three years' time.

"I'd love for us not to be needed anymore."

Until that point, she joked that she might need to make her next invention a time machine, so she could find the time to juggle that work with a heavy academic schedule of lecturing and running the country's only nano medical testing laboratory.

"But it's like anything that's important to you - you make time for it. This is my passion project, so I'm willing to sacrifice my sleep and my social life."

Just like the little girl who grew up to be super-scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson, she believed, there would always be little Nanogirls and Nanoboys at junk-covered dining tables in Kiwi homes, just waiting to solder and tinker a way into their own secret worlds.

Michelle Dickinson aka Nano Girl. Photo / Paul Petch
Michelle Dickinson aka Nano Girl. Photo / Paul Petch