“I still remember the very first time STEM blew my mind!” grins Kisha Bradley.
“I was at high school where I grew up in Indiana and this woman in a white lab coat was demonstrating a science experiment where she dipped a balloon into a canister of liquid nitrogen, held it up, tapped it with a ruler and it burst into a million pieces - mind blown!
“I realised that day that science and technology were awesome, and not just for boys! It could be for me too.”
It’s a lesson Kisha never forgot.
After completing an undergraduate degree in engineering in her home state - where she found herself the only woman in a class of 30 - she moved to Sheffield to complete a masters in International Business Management at the University of Sheffield.
Fast forward 12 months and Kisha was keen to put everything she’d learned to good use. It was then that she decided to launch Bright Box, an innovative new social enterprise dedicated to sparking children’s interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“I’ve always been inquisitive and, as a child, I loved taking things apart,” explains the 25-year-old, who now lives in Parson Cross.
“But despite this, my family and friends never bought my Lego or science kits. All my toys were pink - Barbies, baby dolls, kitchens - there was no awareness that I should be exposed to the same things as my brothers. It’s a dangerous way of thinking. As a result, I grew up thinking that STEM was boring and grey. I had no idea I was so good at maths, which would later become a strength for me, or that engineering was essentially about being creative and solving problems, all things that I absolutely loved.
“As a result, when I first started my engineering course, I realised I was finding it harder than everyone else, working tirelessly to improve my logical thinking and spacial awareness skills – skills that seemed second nature to the men on my course. They all seemed to ‘just get it.’ But what did they have that I didn’t? They’d learned logical thinking, problem-solving and spacial awareness through play as young boys.
“Each birthday and Christmas, as I opened my newest Barbie doll, my brothers were gleefully building roller coaster kits and playing the newest video games, developing their hands-on problem solving skills. As a child, I saw those boys’ toys as off limits to well-behaved girls. And right there was the problem, a gender gap.
“With Bright Box I’m working hard to bring creativity and playful exploration back to STEM, to encourage all kids - no matter their gender - to take part, to experiment, and to make, and to show them everything that is exciting and engaging about STEM.
“It was during my time in my engineering course that I became determined to ensure girls are prepared to pursue any career they choose. Girls shouldn’t be hindered because their toys lag in the development of hands-on problem-solving skills, spacial awareness, and logical thinking.
“With Bright Box, I’ve created a mobile maker space; a place where kids can build and play to their hearts content, with all the tools, material and expertise at their disposal. Bright Box travels from community to community throughout Sheffield and beyond, making sure all kids have equal opportunity to access the fun of STEM.
“We give kids a starting point and let them run with it, experimenting with robots, boats, electricity, anything they can get their hands on to solve the problem.
“Recently we were working with some children in Parson Cross and set them the task of moving something from one place to another. The array of solutions they came up with was incredible. We had some kids using drills or glue guns, and others using hacksaws or electronics; one did a marble run, another did a cannon, it was just fantastic to see.”
Kisha recently pitched Bright Box to the bigwigs at Sheffield SOUP, a group which specialises in offering grants to help bring local businesses, products and services to life - and was awarded £855 grant to buy the tools and equipment she needs to run more interactive workshops throughout the city. She’s also being supported in her mission by University of Sheffield Enterprise, and Groundwork South Yorkshire through the Accelerate programme of the Social Enterprise Exchange.
“I want to reach as many socially excluded kids, and kids in deprived areas as I can, through workshops, makerspaces and community events,” says Kisha.
“I want to help girls gain confidence in their problem-solving skills from a young age, so that they’ll have more options later in life, while at the same time enjoying being kids and having tons of fun learning.
“I’ve also just launched my Bright Box range of children’s STEM parties - to include robot building and stop motion animations, which are proving to be a big hit with kids and parents alike.”
And this week, Kisha and her team of volunteers will be appearing at their biggest event to date, taking Bright Box to the Parson Cross Festival, which has been running fring events all week long, ahead of their main event tomorrow.
Kisha says: “We did some festival fringe workshops earlier in the week, and tomorrow I’ll be at the festival’s final day, from 11am to 4pm, offering fun-filled family engineering and technology activities, to hopefully spark inspiration for the imagination. We’re giving kids the chance to play with boats and buoyancy, building rafts and bridges, ferris wheels and squishy circuits. And as Playdough is conducive, we’re going to be playing around with batteries and LEDs too.
“We’re also planning to launch a regular Saturday workshop very soon, somewhere in the city, where children will be able to get hands-on and experience all kinds of things - hopefully reaching kids at that point in their lives before they decide what subjects and ‘cool’ and ‘uncool.’ We want to get them excited about education, as we know ourselves that is absolutely the best way to learn.”
And Kisha says there is plenty that parents can do to help encourage an interest in STEM amongst their children, and it’s often simple things, such as introducing the right toys early on.
“Obviously, when it comes to buying toys for children, it really depends in their age and interest,” she says.
“But things like Lego and building blocks are great, as are puzzles and board games for logical thinking. Sports is great for spacial awareness too, really anything that involves you having to judge where you are compared to something else.
“And, often, it’s not about spending lots of money, which is key for many parents. Give children a screwdriver, or a hammer, and a plank of wood and let them figure out how things work for themselves.
“Another thing that’s incredible to think about is that 65 per cent of today’s kids will work in jobs that do not yet exist. Amazing! And it’s our job to prepare them for this as well as we can, from an early age, via tech play and improved digital literacy. I think I just had my mind blown again!
“We’re changing the status quo here. You can be girly and smart. You can wear lipstick and design the next driverless car. Our kits help girls learn through play - even when they choose the pink ones! It’s time for us to work with them to grow their confidence and their perspective of where they fit in the world.”
Visit www.mybrighttoys.com for more information on Bright Box and details of upcoming events.