The day I learned about university and the people who got me there

There they were. The ladies everyone had been talking about for weeks. They were a dynamic duo and came sporting their dark blue 21st Century Scholars polos and lots of brochures and paperwork. Mom said to me that morning, “KISHA, are you listening! Make sure you bring home the forms from the 21st Century Scholar people. It’s how you’re going to college.”

I clearly wasn’t listening before, but now she had my attention. My friends kept going on about Ball State, no Purdue, no IU. They were talking about majors, minors, bachelors, masters…I’m not sure. It was all a bit confusing. At 13 years old, this was the first time I’d heard these words. That was the week I learned about what happens after high school.

My mom and grandpa always encouraging and supporting. Here we are at the Wayne County Foundation awards dinner.

My mom and grandpa always encouraging and supporting. Here we are at the Wayne County Foundation awards dinner.

To say I was freaking out is an understatement. After all the hard work I put into passing math and pleasing my English teacher with meaningful poetry, I was worried all my efforts would lead to a future I didn’t want. Back then it was, ‘If you don’t graduate, you’ll end up at McDonalds. That’s the only place that’ll have you.” (In my best annoyed teacher voice).

Back to the lady in a dark blue polo, she had all the answers. I was scribbling furiously, as if my entire future relied on me understanding every bit of information she said. She was telling me that kids whose families earn below the income threshold get to go to college for free, but only if I take these papers home. Some nice man in a suit knew that without these papers, a girl like me would never have a life any better than her parents’. He knew that, no matter how smart I was or am, my family couldn’t afford to send me to university at $10,000 per year – not including the daily costs of eating and showering. Multiply that by 3, because each of my brothers would need to be supported, too.

So you see, even when I was doing everything right, and trying to make the best future for myself, which according to my teachers was by getting good grades, I needed the support of my community. It wasn’t just the man in a suit that made it possible for me to go to university. It was the ladies in the dark polos, Liz Ferris and Sue Skaggs, who answered all of my questions and took me to visit several universities. They talked me through all my options and learned as much about me as they could.

I made it - thank you, Rose-Hulman faculty and staff

I made it - thank you, Rose-Hulman faculty and staff

It's the people who took time to teach me how to raise money and kindly donated, so I could live in DC for 6 months at 16. There are many people who’ve helped me along the way. By trying to name them all, I risk missing out on many. This week, I’m especially grateful to Katherine at SOAR. She took a chance with me. I went to her with a not so clear vision of kids getting hands on and learning through doing. We planned a day where I could set up Bright Box, a creative space for kids to learn through doing, in front of the library in Parson Cross. This Wednesday, I’ll be bringing a kid’s makerspace to Parson Cross Library, paying it forward to the many kids who are like I was at 13, not really knowing what their options are. Wednesday was supposed to be Bright Box’s first event, but because I’ve had the support of the village, we’re going into the day having worked with more than 300 children.

Thank you for believing in me and supporting Bright Box.

Just some of the village supporting me at Sheffield Soup. Photo by Chris Bentley

Just some of the village supporting me at Sheffield Soup. Photo by Chris Bentley

How I watched and let kids fail

Imagine seven 7-11-year-olds using drills, hot glue guns and hand saws for the first time. To say I was anxious is an understatement. I was balancing helping them use tools for the first time and encouraging them to get building their designs. When I was helping one kid by holding a heavy piece of wood, I wasn’t watching others using glue guns safely. And when I was helping a child use a drill, I couldn’t make sure little hands weren’t in the path of a saw.

From the beginning, I needed to build trust with the children. I needed to give them the knowledge for using the tools correctly, but also the confidence that they could do it without me watching. It was important for them to be safe under my care, but also, the success of the event relied on the children feeling confident and being able to use tools and build designs on their own when they left my supervision. I wanted them to leave me with the skills and confidence needed to do projects at home.

It would have been easy to tell each child what would work and what wouldn’t. Put simply, some of their designs were impossible to build in a day. Children’s imaginations are vast and they had huge dreams about what they could achieve. Telling them what works and what doesn’t would have made my job a lot easier. I could have had more control over the room, but then, they wouldn't have learned valuable lessons through trying, failing and trying again. I bit my tongue and let them get on with the building. At the end of the day, I want them to feel confident trying new things and know how to move forward from failures.

For 6 hours, I worried about their failed projects ending in tears. I didn’t expect them to have pride in what they built even though they didn’t go to plan. Before their grown-ups whisked them away, we had a show and tell session. Each child was beaming and confident in what they achieved during the day. We had balloon powered canons, marble runs, perpetual motion machines and a magical, techy teleporting device. For the kids, it wasn’t important for their devices to be fully functioning. They wanted toys to fit their imaginative play. They were proud of what they accomplished and I was happy that they all tried using all the tools.

In my next posts, I’ll discuss my interactions with the children. I’ll touch on how I had to consciously refrain from using cautious language that would discourage the kids from trying.

If you’d like your child to attend one of our workshops, here are some of our upcoming events:

Building boats and battling the wind

Photo cred goes to Tanya, my phone died before any pictures could be taken

Photo cred goes to Tanya, my phone died before any pictures could be taken

A year ago, I went to my local festival and thought, ‘How cool would it be to have a stall here?” Little did I know I’d be bringing my mobile makerspace a year on! I knew at the time I’d be doing something to encourage more girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). But you couldn’t have convinced me I’d literally be taking fun and creative activities to communities to give kids a go. I absolutely love taking my mobile makerspace to communities and seeing kids light up like I did 20 years ago when a lady in a white lab coat showed me the magic of science. But invariably, nothing ever goes to plan.

It was a sunny and very windy day in Sheffield. Tents were flying everywhere. One even scraped across the tops of two cars and landed on top of another tent. Ouch. My day was going a bit smoother than theirs. I didn’t have a tent to worry about, but all my props and my beloved sign that I worked so hard on kept escaping. All the play dough dried out, so we had to put the squishy circuits away.

I had the grand idea of getting every kid that visited my stall to make their very own stamp and ‘leave their mark’ on a sheet that I would take with me everywhere. It was supposed to be a fun way to document all the kids I work with over time. I cut a pool noodle into segments for the kids to cut into fun shapes and dip into paint. (If you’re looking to make stamps with kids, I highly recommend doing it this way, rather than with potatoes.)

I also added a ‘Build a Boat’ activity using popsicle sticks, glue and a tub of water – there are a million Pinterest posts on this. After building a boat at home, painting my nails while waiting for the glue to dry and then watching it float in my sink, I was convinced it would work but worried the glue would take too long to dry. The stamp activity would be a good waiting activity. By the time kids cut their stamps and stamped the board, hopefully, their boats would be dry enough to try out. Not one child made a stamp. But plenty of children (and their adults) made floating “thingies.’

I was a bit heartbroken that the kids weren’t interested in making stamps, but I quickly realized how resourceful the kids by using the pool noodle segments as building pieces for their boats. Because I had the stamp and boat materials stored together, the very first kids used the cut-up pool noodle segments as materials to build their boats. They cut slits for the popsicle sticks to slide in. There was no need for the glue! The noodle segments allowed them to make cool and inventive floating structures that they couldn’t have made with just glue.

Overall, the kids enjoyed building their own boats and watching them float in the water and then trying out boats that other kids left behind. No two boats were the same which was interesting. I thought if kids saw others boats that they would mimic them, but sure enough, they built something unique each time.

I’ll definitely be repeating this activity at the Parson Cross STEM Day on 23 August, along with a new balloon painting activity inspired by Princess Diaries :)

Bright Toys wins £855 to get kids excited about STEM

Me setting up before pitching

Me setting up before pitching

*This is the winning pitch I gave on 26.07/2017 at Sheffield Soup*

Twenty years ago, my mind was blown.  A lady in a white lab coat held took a balloon and dipped it into a massive vat of liquid nitrogen. Then she picked up a ruler and tapped it against the balloon. It shattered to a million pieces. I was hooked. I wanted to know how everything worked. Before that day, I thought STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) were for boys. I thought there was no way a girl like me – mixed race and not knowing if I’d get three meals a day, could be an engineer. And here I am today, an engineer who’s had a lot of really cool jobs. And it all started, with a lady in a white lab coat.

I want to be the lady in the lab coat intervening in kids’ lives. I took my makerspace ( a makerspace is a place where kids bring the imagination and I bring the tools, materials and expertise so that they can make their imaginations reality) to 130 kids. Let me set the scene, they were all around me, making stuff and tinkering and getting excited. One little girl reminded me of myself 20 years ago. She was showing me the LEGO woman she created and we got to talking about a school assignment where she had to write about a machine that would make her bed, cook breakfast for her and even walk the dog. So I said, “Oh, you designed a robot.”

She laughed at me and said, “I can’t make robots.”

To which I said, “But oh you did, robots are anything that responds and does stuff for you.” I could see it on her face. In that moment the light bulb turned on for her. She was so excited that she designed something. She then built her robot from LEGO, and suddenly, her robot wasn’t just doing household chores, it was playing football with her – something she’s passionate and excited about.

Girls working together to build a table

Girls working together to build a table

I want to continue being the lady in the white lab coat, changing kids’ perspectives of where they fit in the world, growing their confidence, and opening their minds that they can do anything. Now imagine, a little girl, drill in hand, with a tool belt around her waist building her own robot.

To continue these interventions, what I really need are continued donations of tools and materials, volunteers and for you to spread the word. Tools and materials enable kids to create their magical worlds, allow kids to be creators of tech and not just consumers of it and the support of the community means I can reach more kids :)

If you can help in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you!

Squishy Circuits

Where playdough meets electricity! 

Squishy circuits are a straight forward way to play with science, technology, engineering and art (and math if you let the kids measure out all the ingredients)! It's a whole lot of learning masked by a bunch of fun. Who knew us adults could be so tricky.

You can use store bought playdough to make these squishy circuits, but what's the fun in that when you probably have most of these ingredients lying around the house!

Shopping List:

1/2 cup salt
1 cup plain flour
2 tbsp cream of tartar
1 cup water
1 tbs oil
food dye (keep adding until you reach the desired color)

Get out your saucepan and a spoon for mixing (I use a wooden one). Mix all the ingredients together over low heat until you have a pliable dough. If you're like me, your arm will get a bit sore toward the end but persevere, you're almost there.

That's it! Let your dough cool and then play. When playtime is over, store the dough in a well sealed plastic bag or container and it will last you months!

Okay, but how do we get started???

All you need are some LEDs and a battery pack (I like to use the low power lantern battery with crocodile leads. You can also make your own from LEGO and aluminium). If you're ready for some more experiments, you can add a piezo buzzer to the mix. 

The circuits can be simple or complex. I put together these basic circuits to get you started. Have a play to see what happens with each of the different types of circuits. Now that you know the basics, make something fun!

There are lots of recipes out there for homemade insulating dough, but I prefer non-drying clay for making advanced squishy circuit masterpieces!

Happy Making!