Updated: Jun 20
Interviewing Ruth Amos as our STEM Hero for Women in Engineering Day, I found myself having a bit of a Life's a Movie moment.
I discovered that our two lives so far are like those sliding doors: we started and ended similarly, but with different paths along the way.
While I've ended up teaching engineering to kids, Ruth's found herself rocking it as an engineer and presenter for children.
And in the Grand Finale to our movie lives, our paths collided at the National Archives in Kew just a few weeks ago. We're both leading different initiatives for their Spirit of Invention exhibition. Ruth is in charge of the exhibition itself and we're entrusted with running their family summer workshops.
But let's rewind to that pivotal moment, the one that diverted Ruth's life story away from my own. It all came down to one of her teachers who changed her life trajectory with a single task of creativity.
Ruth grew up in Sheffield where she was an all rounder at school, particularly enjoying drama, PE and maths. By the time she hit secondary school, she (like me) had her sights set on becoming a lawyer. But little did she know that fate had other plans for her.
You see, Ruth's secondary school, just like mine, required every student to take a technology subject for their GCSEs. And, again just like yours truly, Ruth chose to take Resistant Materials. However, here's where our paths diverged. While I ended up designing and building the traditional 'girl' project of a jewellery box (though I didn't even wear jewellery), Ruth's teacher nudged her in a different direction.
In a boy-heavy class with only one other girl, Mr. Stokes gave Ruth a more creative challenge. The challenge was to design something to help his father, who had mobility issues following a stroke. His house didn’t have a stairlift so he needed a safe solution to go up and down the stairs.
Ruth admits she wasn’t particularly excited by the project at first. She assumed someone must have already come up with a solution. After all, who would've thought there was still anything left to invent anyway?
But as she delved deeper and realised no one had solved the problem yet, she threw herself into the project. She dug into books on engineering, explored the world of mobility, and even found inspiration in one of her brother's toys. And voila, her invention idea began to take shape!
To further develop Ruth's concept for her StairSteady device, Mr. Stokes introduced her to a local engineering firm. He also entered her into a national engineering competition, and at the age of just 16, Ruth was named Young Engineer of Great Britain. In her own words, she was suddenly "thrown into this whole world of engineering" and as a result, her plans to pursue law at university took an unexpected detour.
Two years later, while I embarked on my own university journey to study law as planned (sans jewellery box, of course), Ruth left school and headed off to establish StairSteady as a business. Armed with nothing but a laptop on her parents' dining table, her entrepreneurial adventure began.
Fast forward 17 years and StairSteady has sold thousands of devices across multiple countries. Oh and Ruth herself has won multiple awards too. Talk about an inspiration!
As Ruth started to find out more about this new world of engineering, she realised that she had always been destined to be an engineer. She told me,
“It's totally what I enjoy. I love making and designing and problem solving, but no one ever told me that I should be an engineer.
And then I started to think about how many other people were in the same situation, particularly girls who would make incredible engineers but had no idea about it.”
It was at this point in our conversation that I began to feel a little emotional. After studying law I went on to become a solicitor, then later a teacher. It was only at last in my late 30’s that I started my own entrepreneurial journey and discovered how much I too would have enjoyed a career in engineering. If only I’d understood in school what engineering was and that it was for girls too.
Research has shown that young people, particularly girls, form their ideas around engineering a lot earlier than people expect. I'm sure I don't need to tell you the effect this goes on to have around gender balance in engineering fields.
So Ruth, like us at Inventors & Makers, is now on a mission to try and make sure that no one else misses out on a career that they might love and thrive at by raising awareness of engineering in young people. She does this, again like us, by getting primary aged children inventing and coming up with new ideas.
Ruth started her popular YouTube channel Kids Invent Stuff in 2017. Along with her YouTubing partner Shawn, they ask children aged 4-11 to send them pictures and drawings of their invention ideas. Then every month they bring a different invention idea to life, with often hilarious consequences.
So far they’ve brought over 70 kids' invention ideas to life, from popcorn firing doorbells (see video below), to giant robot dinosaurs that mop the floor, to vegetable launchers to get you eating your 5 a day.
And so, it's with this spirit of invention and engineering in mind, that we’d love you to try some inventing with your own children before the end of term.
Perhaps you could be that teacher that changes a child's life with a sliding doors moment!
Get Your Class Inventing
1. Tell your class all about Ruth Amos: Use our STEM Hero resource on your whiteboard, printed out or in a school display to read about Ruth Amos' inventing journey. By the way, make sure to get our STEM Heroes resources sent to you for free every week by signing up here.
2. Do some inventing with your class: We’ve also made an extra free download with some resources, inspiring quotes by Ruth and invention prompts that you can use with your pupils.
3. Submit your inventions: When your invention ideas are ready, parents can submit them on Ruth’s website here to potentially get one of them made for real! And please do share their designs with us too either on Twitter (@InventorsM) or by emailing them to email@example.com
Do Even More Inventing
Inventors & Makers invention-themed workshops for KS1 and KS2 take pupils through the entire design thinking process to come up with new inventions to solve a specific problem they come up with themselves. For only £99 you can use them across the whole key stage all term with everything done for you. See more about our workshops here.
If your school is located in London or West of London you might like to tell your parents about the Spirit of Invention family workshops taking place this August. See more and book a spot here.
You might even want to tell parents about Ruth and Shawn's Inventors Club that families can take part in over the summer holidays. To find out about more sign up to their newsletter on their website.