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What happens when Nanogirl gets kids in the kitchen

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

Nanogirl, aka Dr Michelle Dickinson, has a new cookbook that teaches kids about cooking and science at the same time.

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’.”

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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.”

The following is an extract from the book:

Edible worms.

Recipe: Edible Earthworms

Scientific principle: Crosslinking
Time required: 45 minutes, plus 4 hours of setting time

Using the power of crosslinking, these realistic-looking worms not only look amazingly disgusting, but they also taste great!

50 plastic bendy straws
Rubber band
(or length of string)
Tall container


375ml (1½ cups) boiling water
2 boxes strawberry or
raspberry jelly crystals
10g (1 Tbsp) powdered gelatin
125ml (½ cup) cream
Green food colouring

1. Carefully pour the boiling water into a large jug and add the jelly crystals and gelatin, stirring until dissolved.
2. Add the cream and whisk until fully mixed.
3. Stir in 3 drops of green food colouring.
4. Stretch out the flexible part of the straws so they are fully extended.
5. Gather the straws together and use a rubber band or string to hold them together.
6. Place the straws upright in a tall, tight-fitting container or jar.
7. Carefully pour over the mixture to fill each straw. Refrigerate for 4 hours.
8. If the straws start to float, place a weight on top to hold them down.
9. Once set, rinse the outside of the straws in lukewarm water to loosen the worms.
10. Starting at the top, gently squeeze each straw together with your fingers (or the back of a blunt knife) and slide down the length of the straw to push the worms out onto a plate.
11. To make the worms look as though they are in soil, crush dark-chocolate cookies and lay them on the plate as a base for the worms to sit on.

The Science Behind Edible Worms
Jelly wobbles because it contains gelatin, a coiled-up protein chain that unravels and floats around as strands when hot water is added. As the water cools down, the gelatin strands coil back up and become tangled with each other, trapping the fluid they are in and transforming the liquid into a solid structure.

This process of gelatin strands becoming tangled with each other is called crosslinking. Because the worms have a high aspect ratio – meaning they are long and thin – they need to be stiffened to help them keep their shape.

Adding the extra gelatin causes more crosslinking to occur, with the chains making the structure firmer and stiffer when set. Jelly is usually transparent – or see-through – but the additional protein and fat molecules from the cream deflect and scatter the light so that the worms become opaque.

Mixing red jelly and green food colouring make the worms a “realistic” brown colour – but you can, of course, make them any colour you like!

Explore further
• What happens if you change the amount of gelatin in the worm mixture? Why do you think this is?
• Do the worms look different if you do not add the cream to the mixture?
• What happens if you do not rinse the straws in warm water before squeezing out the worms?
• Why do you think the warm water helps?

The Kitchen Science Cookbook by Dr Michelle Dickinson (Nanogirl Labs Ltd, $49.99). Photography by Magic Rabbit Ltd. Find out more about Nanogirl Labs at nanogirllabs.com.

This was published in the May 2018 issue of North & South.