Michelle Dickinson: What Should We Tell Our Kids About Covid-19?

Our very own Nanogirl, Michelle Dickinson, on how to talk to kids about Covid-19 and the unexpected silver linings of these times.

It’s been a couple of years in which uncertainty has reigned supreme, where we’ve become accustomed to a regular trip to the supermarket looking more like something from a Hollywood sci-fi movie, where scientific jargon has become a part of our everyday vocabularies, and emotions have been frayed from fear invading all aspects of our lives – health, finances, family.

But while we try to put this year into perspective, many have instead been shifting their attention to the younger generations – wondering and worrying what are they making of this all? How is this affecting them? How much should we be telling them? Should we be trying to shield them from this all?

Our very own Nanogirl, Michelle Dickinson, held regular “press conferences” with children in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak to explain what the virus was, how washing our hands can help and answer the many questions children had about what the heck was going on. She says what all parents and caregivers should be continuing to do is having regular conversations with their children about what is going on.

“I’ve heard lots of parents say, ‘Oh, I’m going to shield my child and not tell them’ and what we’ve seen – because we’re talking to a lot of children who message us on our platform – is the kids are telling us, ‘Mum and Dad aren’t talking about this to us, so it must be really scary and really dangerous,’” says Michelle.

“So, not having those conversations is actually creating a lot of fear. You look at that, versus sharing with your children, so they are able to put things into perspective, to be curious, to ask questions and you see the importance of having those conversations with your kids. At first it might be a bit uncomfortable, but it helps them to process the world, and it’s important, because the anxiety levels we’re seeing in kids who aren’t having those conversations at home is really high.”

Michelle says those children who are having more open conversations are faring much better and are able to get on with things – including learning (whether it’s in the classroom or at home during lockdowns).

And from Michelle’s experience, there’s also a very interesting shift happening amongst our young people, which could become one of the silver linings of the pandemic. As Nanogirl, Michelle has long been championing young women and those from ethnic minority groups to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering & maths) fields – an industry often dominated by white, middle-aged men. But now, what she is discovering is that across the board, the interest and literacy of these subjects is rapidly increasing.

“What’s been really interesting is we’ve got back the research from this year and we’ve always asked the same question to kids first: ‘What do you think a scientist does for a job?’ Before lockdown, the most popular answer was always: ‘makes potions.’

“Well, since lockdown – with no prompting from us – the answers now include the words ‘virus’, ‘vaccination’, ‘research’ and ‘cure’. We have seen an incredible change in the vocabulary of 6-10-year-olds! It’s very exciting to see them using very scientific jargon, and if we can keep having these conversations, whether it’s concepts around vaccinations or renewable energy, scientific literacy could really increase, and the face of science could look very different in 15-20 years.”

It’s a goal Michelle has devoted much of her time to in recent years, after giving up her job to start up a science-based business targeting families, in the hopes of engaging more young people – particularly those in minority groups or low-decile areas – in the wonderful world of STEM.

For Michelle, it was a move born purely out of frustration. At the time, she was working full-time at the University of Auckland as an Engineering professor. “It was just seeing the lack of diversity in engineering after having spent 20 years as the only woman in the room at meetings, having dealt with a whole lot of horrific sexism and terrible workplaces – only to find myself 20 years later teaching the next generation and realising that things weren’t really changing.”

“I thought, ‘if I don’t do something about this, there’s going to be another 20 years of really challenging times for women. I can’t sit here and have a cushy job at a university and take a pay cheque and just think, ‘Somebody else will fix it!’ Instead, I took a big leap of faith, stopped the income and dedicated everything into helping all kids – particularly kids who are in a minority group – into STEM.”

Her company is for-profit, but currently pours more than half of its profits into doing good.

This year was set to be their biggest and brightest yet – but of course, Covid-19 has had other ideas.

While the company sells science products – which includes a wonderful buy-one-give-one scheme to get the educational tools into the hands of those who might otherwise never have that opportunity – where the company was really taking off was in the Nanogirl LIVE shows.

Michelle onstage for a Nanogirl LIVE performance

“We invented these theatre shows that we call science pantomime,” explains Michelle. “No one else in the world does them – they’re big science stories with a narrative and characters. We’ve done four different shows in four years and they always sell out. Well, we got picked up globally – this company said, ‘this is world class, we’ve never seen anything like it, we’d love you to tour the world!’”

“So, of course, we went, ‘YES! Finally all this work we’ve been doing in NZ is being recognised globally!’ Right now we would have been half-way through the tour through Australia and the Middle East. We were due to end with a month on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!”

Having spent six months of planning – and paying for sets, organising logistics and preparing to be out of NZ for half the year, the cancellation tipped everything on its head.

But, the ever-resourceful Michelle and her husband sat down, and reassessed their situation. “We sat down and said ‘Ok, what is it that we actually do? We help empower families to love science and technology and deliver it in a way that they have access to.”

So they decided to build an online theatre show and called on as many favours as they could to quickly build a TV studio in their office. “We had a couple of friends who had just been laid off the Lord of the Rings set, so we asked if we could borrow some gear – we ended up with this amazing camera that I didn’t even know how to push the button on!”

From there she and her husband Joe moved into the office and camped out, making content for their site every single day. On top of that, they made a new program for the home learning channel to help high school students with science. Plus, Michelle was also called upon by the Government to help communicate messages about Covid-19, and was often called upon by media outlets to provide commentary. That meant she was spending about three or four hours every night reading the scientific papers that had come out that day to ensure she had all the evidence fresh for the next day.

All this, while living in her workplace, without a proper shower, no kitchen facilities besides a microwave – and a bed that was one metre away from the video camera. “It was handy it was so close at the end of the day! But it definitely wasn’t a good work/life balance. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way than spending that time with my husband. I did have a naughty step where I would send myself if I needed a time out – but he never needed to be sent there, it was always me sending myself to the naughty step to take some time out,” she tells, laughing.

Michelle alongside PM Jacinda Ardern and Professor Siouxsie Wiles at a Children’s Press Conference

Now, Michelle is reassessing where to from here and having a little breather – “not too long, because the bills still need to be paid!” – to work out where to take the business next, now that children are back at school.

With any luck her shows will be back up and running sometime soon – to see more information on them, click here. Or, to learn about her line of science products (they make fantastic gifts!) head here!

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