ASB Bright Sparks: Encouraging kids to be curious

03 November 2017 / Published in Tech & Innovation

With or without technology, it’s important for young people to learn to be adaptable, to communicate well and never stop learning. ASB is a proud sponsor of Bright Sparks, an annual tech-education initiative renowned for fostering innovation and professional development in Kiwi kids. The finalists for the 2017 ASB Bright Sparks competition have been announced but you can still vote for the People's Choice Award, with the winner being announced at the 2017 ASB Bright Spark Awards ceremony on the 7 November 2017.

We recently spoke with Dr Michelle Dickinson aka Nanogirl about her passion for tech, as well as the pathways available for young people. While it might not be clear what the careers of the future will look like – it’s the young people today that will be the ones to define what they are.

ASB Chief Architect, James Bergin adds, “The one thing we know about careers in the future is that they will constantly be changing and adapting as the world continues to change.  I think that always pushing yourself to learn, explore, enquire and innovate every day – just like these Bright Sparks – is going to be the key to unlocking success in future employment.”

Questions for Dr Michelle Dickinson aka Nanogirl

Tell us a little about what you do, and how you got started?

I’m an engineer at the University of Auckland where I carry our research in the field of nanotechnology - making and breaking new technology for the medical and electronics industry.  I have always been fascinated by how things work, and my journey started as a child when I would often open up electronic devices and try to take them apart and rebuild them with the goal of understanding what each of the components did in the process.  Since then I’ve never stopped taking things apart to figure out how they work and then trying to make them better.

What was it that sparked your interest and passion for technology?

I loved comic books and science fiction stories growing up, which were all full of technology based solutions. Inspired by fiction, especially Batman who built his own equipment, I wanted to learn how to build and create solutions to problems I was seeing around me and knew that I had to acquire new skills including coding and electronics to be able to achieve this.

What is the main driver behind what you do?

I’m driven by wanting to make a difference in the world, whether that be through inventing a new technology that can help to improve medical treatments or through increasing science literacy around the world.     

What do you love most about your job?

I love the incredibly smart people that I get to work with.  Science and engineering is all about collaboration, working with others to come up with the best solutions for a problem.  Being surrounded by passionate, driven people is a real privilege and means my days are filled with amazing people who all have a common goal of finding solutions to problems.

The only thing that really stays constant is the fact that everything changes. How do you feel young people might look to the future in terms of their own career pathway when so much can change so quickly?

Things have always changed. The equipment that our Grandparents used is different to that of our parents and now to us.  The challenge is being open to change and to never stop learning.  I think that rather than think about long term career plans, young people should be looking more at what their passions are, what they love to do and work on improving the skills involved in the things that are naturally good.  We don't know what many of the careers of the future will look like, but we can work on learning new skills every day to increase our current knowledge and be more ready for the future.   

Tech doesn’t seem like it’s something that’s outside of the norm anymore – it’s an inherent part of our lives. With this in mind, what advice do you have for young people about the skills they might need for the future?

I think tech is still not the norm for many New Zealanders and we are still very much on a technology adoption curve especially outside of the main centres of New Zealand.  With or without technology, I believe that the important skills that young people need for a tech filled future include the ability to adapt easily, to be empathetic to others, to communicate well and to never stop learning.

Where do you see the biggest opportunities for our young people in technology?

I actually think that young people will be the ones to define the opportunities for the future with their ideas.  As digital natives they are in the best place to see how technology integrates with current products to help solve problems and improve processes.

What would you say about there being a common misconception about tech being boring or sitting behind a computer all day? How diverse is the field?

I would say that the stereotype is there for a reason, and there are some tech jobs that do involve sitting behind a computer all day, but there are so many other tech disciplines that are active and involve interacting with people or are based outside.  The field is very diverse from biomedical engineering to agricultural IoT design, to smart fabric fashion design, pretty much every industry will have technology integrated into it within the next decade.

What advice do you have for young women with aspirations to work in technology?

Technology and making things is for anybody who wants to do it, and is not based on gender but on a passion for creating something new.  My advice to anybody who wants to work in technology is to do it, and if somebody says that you can’t then don’t give up, just go and ask another person.

What is the one piece of advice you’d give to parents wanting to give their children the best opportunities to find their passion?

My advice is to just let your children be curious and discover and try new things. They might not like everything that they try but exposing them to new technology, whether it be hardware or software will help them to build confidence in the field and experiment to find out what they love.  I’m hearing a lot of parents worry about their children having too much screen time, but it’s not about the time with technology, it’s about what they are doing while they are on there.  Creative games like Mindcraft, coding programs like scratch and building software like TinkerCAD are all screen time activities that I believe can help to build skills for the future workplace.

Where to next for Nanogirl?  

Nanogirl has expanded overseas and we will be spreading science and technology education across Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, China and the UK over the next 12 months as well as continuing to work with young people around New Zealand.


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