Dr Michelle Dick­in­son gets kids – and science – into the kitchen.

Dr Michelle Dick­in­son – “Nanogirl” – gets the kids into the kitchen.

North & South - - In This Issue - STACEY ANYAN

Noo­dles that turn from white to pur­ple to pink with the aid of red cab­bage and lemon juice; a can­dle that uses a ba­nana for the stump and an al­mond for the wick; a choco­latey “slime” that flows like a liq­uid but can be rolled like a solid... These are just a few of the ed­i­ble treats in The Kitchen Science Cook­book that kids can con­coct from ev­ery­day pantry in­gre­di­ents.

The book has non- ed­i­ble ex­per­i­ments, too – straw rock­ets, bouncy eggs, vol­ca­noes that erupt with lava made from bak­ing soda and vine­gar – and most recipes cost less than a dol­lar to make, says the book’s cre­ator, Dr Michelle Dick­in­son.

A nan­otech­nol­o­gist and lauded science com­mu­ni­ca­tor known as Nanogirl, Dick­in­son was in­spired by people like the mother she met af­ter one of her live shows who told her she’d flunked science at school but wanted to foster a love of science in her own daugh­ter. “Then she of­fered me a cake she’d made at home as a gift. I told her, ‘You do use science – you baked this cake!’ and she replied, ‘No, that’s bak­ing, it’s very dif­fer­ent from science.’ I said, ‘Well, what hap­pens if it doesn’t rise enough – you use more bak­ing soda and then turn the oven up higher...’ There was a real dis­con­nect between what she was do­ing and the word ‘science’.”

So Dick­in­son spent three years us­ing her kitchen as a lab (“much to my part­ner’s dis­may”), com­ing up with 300 ex­per­i­ments. She put a call- out on Face­book for recipe testers, “think­ing I’d get about five of my friends with kids re­spond­ing, but in 24 hours we had 2000

ap­pli­cants from 24 coun­tries!”

Sur­pris­ingly for a self- de­scribed “science nerd”, Dick­in­son had never done any of these ex­per­i­ments her­self as a kid. “Who knew you could make but­ter from shak­ing cream in a jar?” she says in­cred­u­lously. Dick­in­son grew up in a peri­patetic mil­i­tary fam­ily. Her par­ents had both left high school without for­mal qual­i­fi­ca­tions and never read her bed­time sto­ries. But when she was 10, her fa­ther stud­ied for a Diploma in Elec­tri­cal En­gi­neer­ing and she bonded with him over the sol­der­ing iron.

A firm Star Trek and sci-fi fan, she left the UK when she was 20 to do a PHD in nan­otech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing. For a decade, she worked with “some cool com­pa­nies that did smart elec­tron­ics… I got to work on the fu­ture, to see what your com­puter would look like 10 years be­fore they ar­rived on the shelves.”

Af­ter “try­ing on dif­fer­ent coun­tries”, she came to New Zealand in 2009 as a “30-some­thing” and in­stantly knew she’d found home. She ap­proached Auck­land Univer­sity to build a nan­otech­nol­ogy re­search lab, hop­ing to cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents who came from “chal­leng­ing” back­grounds like her own. Part of the en­gi­neer­ing fac­ulty, it’s the only one of its kind in New Zealand.

In 2012, she was asked by Tedx Auck­land to give a lec­ture on nan­otech­nol­ogy. Pet­ri­fied of pub­lic speak­ing, she en­listed an act­ing coach, who ad­vised her to cre­ate a char­ac­ter to act on stage. “Nanogirl was all the things I wanted to be: a con­fi­dent, smart, amaz­ing su­per­hero.”

In last year’s six-week na­tion­wide tour, Nanogirl per­formed science stunts – such as fir­ing her­self across the stage in a fire ex­tin­guisher-pro­pelled shop­ping trol­ley–to thou­sands of kids, and trained 250 teach­ers in how to in­cor­po­rate science in the class­room.

The day af­ter do­ing a show, Dick­in­son gets in­un­dated with videos posted by chil­dren who’ve at­tempted the ex­per­i­ments she en­cour­ages them to try at home (no, not the shop­ping trol­ley one).

“Then we have kids build­ing all sorts of weird and won­der­ful things. There was an eight-year- old who put a dy­namo on his BMX to charge his iphone as he ped­alled. And a 10-year- old who wanted to help the en­vi­ron­ment, so she cre­ated a model where she put fruit and veg­eta­bles into a box, mea­sured the gas and heat that came off them, and turned it into a lit­tle ‘power sta­tion’. She wanted to send it to the coun­cil to see if they could cre­ate some­thing sim­i­lar in our com­mu­ni­ties.”

Now Nanogirl has gone global, with local ver­sions sur­fac­ing in five coun­tries and in four lan­guages. “We’ve got an Ara­bic-speak­ing Nanogirl in Abu Dhabi and I’m trav­el­ling to Hong Kong this week­end to train a Chi­nese-speak­ing Nanogirl.”

Dick­in­son self-pub­lished The Kitchen Science Cook­book as part of a pay-it-for­ward scheme (the same model she uses for her Nanogirl Live! shows), where for ev­ery book sold, a book will be do­nated to a li­brary, school or com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tion. A Kick­starter fund and pre- or­der sales helped pay for the print­ing. “I’m so grate­ful people be­lieved in us.”

Dr Michelle Dick­in­son and a young vol­un­teer in the “test kitchen”.

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