Sunday, 9 December 2012


In 1930 Ruth Wakefield, busy working hard to serve the customers at her toll booth restaurant, didn’t have time to melt the chocolate for her cookies, so she just broke it into chunks, threw it in the batter and went on with her merry business. In 1964 Stephanie Kwolek took a job to help her save for medical school, and ended up working with thread-like polymers. In 1810 Tabitha Babbitt saw the men in her Shaker community wasting precious effort sawing the wood they relied on. Without these lucky, dedicated and creative women we may never have had the chance to dip chocolate chip cookies in milk, watched people get shot only to stand up with a mere dent in their Kevlar vests, or had the circular saw save millions of hours of work every year. Women have had a long history of innovation, and that legacy continues today (hint: today’s buzzword is: innovation).

For the past four years different African countries have held the Maker Faire Africa, a conference where people can show off their innovative ideas to help solve the immediate problems and difficulties that the people of the world face. Ghana, Kenya, and Egypt have all had the privilege of hosting the event, and this year Nigeria took its turn. The intent is not simply to admire the ingenuity of the many attendees (and there are a fantastic amount) but also to support and propagate these ideas in hopes of creating real and lasting change. 

Those of you who know about the event have undoubtedly heard about four teenaged girls (Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, Faleke Oluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola) who have created a urine powered generator. And I’m going to discuss them some more. Because they’re awesome. Super awesome. The device uses urine, which is put into an electrolytic cell, to crack urea (CO(NH2)2) into nitrogen, water and hydrogen. The hydrogen is then purified by water and then pushed into a gas cylinder, then into another cylinder with liquid borax to dry the hydrogen out. The hydrogen is then pushed into the generator and then BOOM (except without with less excitement and more safety, so more like boooooooooooooooooom) the hydrogen is ignited like any other combustible fluid. As far as I know this process also makes some sweet, sweet H2O, so if it is done properly it could also work as a urine recycling device. As an added bonus all of these chemicals are relatively cheap, and easy to get a hold of.

The device is still in its prototype phase, which means there are a few hiccups. For one: some electricity is needed to create the hydrogen using the urea, which means that it cannot be used in areas with absolutely no access to electricity. At this point more electricity is used than is produced, but ultimately the device is more efficient than current methods of purification. Another problem is that the process creates chlorine along with hydrogen, so some of the hydrogen will be turned into a weak hydrochloric acid. This is bad for machines and especially bad for people. 

So...yes the idea does have a few problems, but I urge you to note that these are teenage girls, still in high school. When I was in high school I couldn’t even tie my shoe laces at a freshman level. Once these girls refine this device, their first mark on the world, their futures will be wide open. I am excited to see what other creations they have in store for us. 

I now direct your attention to another set of innovators, the creators of Maykah, toys for girls. Alice Brook, Bettina Chen and Jennifer Kessler are the brilliant minds behind this delightful new company.  These three women are exhausted by the gender stereotypes surrounding little girl’s toys, so they have decided to create their own toys. With science. And Math. And Creativity.

Their first toy, called Roominate, was an instant hit. They asked for a reasonable 25 000$ on kickstarter, but quickly sped past the meager amount and received over 85 000$ by the time they were finished. Roominate is a stackable, attachable and customizable room-building bonanza with electrical circuits (safe, of course) that a child can set up for themselves. It offers infinite possibilities for minds capable of infinite designs and gives little girls the opportunity to use their creativity in the male dominated fields of design, construction and electricity.

Little girls can build any room that their heart desires. Their website shows one child that built an airport cupcake store, another designed an adorable little pet shop. The toy not only helps the girls learn spatial reasoning and circuitry, but also allows them to think about the multitude of things they might do when they are adults. It allows them to consider the very real possibilities of being entrepreneurs themselves. Not to say that this toy is only for girls. If I had a daughter or a son I can assure you that we would be building a space room together. Or a shark room. Or a space-shark room. 

These three women come highly educated. It is because their backgrounds lay in the more male-dominated fields of mechanical and electrical engineering, math and cognitive science that they have chosen to fight for female ingenuity. They are smart enough to know that it is much harder to teach adults equality that to reinforce something that children start out believing: math and science can be just as fun as dolls. They stand as beacons of reason and logic, of education and the capabilities of both men and women.

The two groups of women are simply followers in a long line of female innovators and creative thinkers. They are fortunate to be born at this time, in these places, where they can take credit for their actions and inspire other women to follow after them. Innovation is not, and has never been solely the prerogative of men and the more we realize this, the sooner I will get to take my trip into space.
It’s too late to surprise your own children with Roominate this Christmas season, but you can always give it to them a little later. After all, it’s never the wrong time to inspire your child to build a space-shark room.

By Matthew Ariss
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Also, check out these sites if you so desire

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