If Kids Really Knew STEM

If Kids Really Knew STEM

Jasmine Florentine’s new book introduces making and STEM to middle-schoolers. The book, “Hex Allen and the Clanksmiths”, creates a fantasy world where real problems are solved by hands-on skills. Jasmine is driven to help young people understand STEM, not just as a field of study, but as an opportunity to apply their creativity as well as their intelligence. She believes if more kids knew what STEM really was, they’d realize it offered something for everyone — a no-brainer.

Jasmine has her BS/MS from MIT in Mechanical Engineering. She’s worked at FIRST Robotics designing play fields for robotic competitions. She lives in Israel but will be moving soon.


Video podcast


Dale: I’m joined today by Jasmine Florentine who just published her first book and it’s called Hex Allen and the Clanksmiths. It’s a book for middle schoolers. 

First of all, welcome Jasmine. Nice to talk to you. 

Florentine: Thank you so much. It’s an honor, honestly. 

Dale: Tell me when in your life did you start making stuff or how did that sort of emerge as part of who you are?

Florentine: So I basically, as long as I remember, but a lot of it was channeled into arts and crafts at first, just cause I didn’t really know about, I don’t know, like engineering and like electronics or any of that. I wasn’t quite introduced to that. So I was doing a lot of things like drawing and origami and scavenging things around the house and assembling them into weird things.

And it wasn’t really until I got to college that I found out what engineering was and was oh, it’s just making things like this is great. Yeah, 

Dale: It’s funny. It is that simple in a way, but sometimes, it gets portrayed as well. You gotta be this math person, you gotta do all these other things.

And sometimes I find in some of the schools in their recruitment of engineers end up with people who actually don’t have a desire to make things. They just found their way into engineering because they had good math scores and which is fine, but it’s just a different path.

Florentine: That’s fair too. Like engineering is a hugely broad field and there’s parts of it that are like much more theory and math heavy and parts of it that are much more hands on and making heavy. Like, I went into mechanical engineering with a focus on product design, so then there’s a lot more of an emphasis on — okay, most of math is gonna be back at the envelope calculations. And then you’re gonna actually be prototyping something to figure out if it works. But if you’re doing something that’s I don’t know, complicated fluid analysis, then you’re probably diving the math.

Dale: I don’t mean to disparage math. I think it’s another tool in the tool chest. And actually that back of the envelope calculation thing is quite a good way to look at things. 

It sounds if you were in product design, essentially that’s prototyping, isn’t it? I always felt like the maker movement really is a revolution, not so much a manufacturing, but in prototyping. And that you can make things faster, easier, and therefore if they don’t work out, you just make it again. Where there used to be a penalty to having to start over and you had to get the design perfect before you made the thing, and that was a different way of looking at developing a product.

Florentine: Whenever anybody asks me about 3D printing I’m always like originally I saw it as just a fun toy until I actually was seeing how it was getting used in product development. And seeing how, like I was, I guess I was still working at places that were doing it the way they used to, which is they would send the CAD model to get milled in China and then shipped over, and that was an expensive process.

And then suddenly with 3D printing, you just print it and the next day you’re like, oh, great, this prototype works. 

Dale: Or it doesn’t, 

Florentine: or it doesn’t, more likely it doesn’t the first few times. 

Dale: So you went into MIT and you got a BS and an MS in mechanical engineering, is that right? What was that experience like? I’m not an MIT person and what is that like? Also as a woman going into MIT these days. 

Florentine: I loved it. I was really nervous going in because I wasn’t one of those people who was like on the math team and hardcore math sciences in that way.

I liked math and science as much as I liked any other subject. I think senior, no, junior year in high school, it really started to make sense to me and I really started to enjoy it. But I applied to engineering schools sort of from encouragement from friends and teachers who were like, oh, you’re good at math and science. You should at least visit and see what you think. And once I visited and saw like robotics and product design and all that, it seemed really exciting, but it really took me the first year there to actually feel like I deserved to be there. I guess for a long time I had this I dunno, a chip on my shoulder of, oh, I only got in because I was a woman.

Maybe I wasn’t qualified enough. And unfortunately part of that actually came from something that somebody had told me, which was basically, oh, you’re only getting in –first they said, you won’t get in with those SAT scores in math. And I said, okay, wait till the SAT2 comes back or my AP scores.

Because for whatever reason, I handled the higher level math better than the like basic SAT math. Those came back and then she said, oh, you’ll get in because you’re a woman, but you won’t like it. And so that entire first year I guess I was really nervous and it wasn’t until I started realizing that I was doing well in my classes and I was really enjoying things and I was being challenged, but everybody was being challenged and we were all working together that I really felt like, oh I belong here.

And then when I started taking more mechanical engineering and product design classes, I was like, this is really fun and a way for me to also use my creativity. 

Dale: Which is a strength. I like to think that MIT is looking for those kinds of people. If you go to RSDI or other schools where they get the creative people that don’t have necessarily, they get the design background, but they don’t have the engineering.

You go to the engineering side and you get people that don’t have that design or creativity. They’re kind of two worlds that want to meet the middle somewhere more often. 

Florentine: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t get it. I’ve never taken courses at RSDI but my senior year at MIT I took courses at Mass Art, which also has an industrial design program.

And it was really cool seeing what product design looks like from their perspective. And I think for me, I really wanted to be somewhere in the middle. Like I wanted to think about the user design and how it looked, but I also wanted to make it work or understand from a technical perspective.

To me, it’s like the two of them go hand in hand. And I wanted to be somewhere in the middle. 

Dale: Give me an example of a project you did at school that it was a product. Where did the idea come from and how did you develop it?

Florentine: Yeah. So one of my favorite projects, this was actually a graduate school project was for a product design class where the challenge was so we were working with this nearby place that sort of did puzzle adventures for kids. This was before escape rooms, but it had a similar vibe and they were making a new one that was gonna be science fiction themed.

So the challenge for the class was, go and make something science fiction themed. And our team was just wow, we get to feel like Disney Imagineers here. And so we decided early on that we just wanted to make a really ridiculous over the top science fiction door. I’m not really sure how we settled on that.

I think it was just, because whenever you watch all those sci-fi movies, they always have all the extra movements and the lights and just extra pneumatics and movements and stuff. And so the process we went through, actually I had a really amazing team, including people who came from an industrial design background and people who came from a mechanical engineering background.

And the product design process we went through was textbook in the way we went through it. And it was a really great learning experience for me, learning from my teammates. So we started with all the drawings of all of our ideas and stuff. Originally we wanted to make like an aperture style door, a camera shutter with six leaves.

We built some prototypes of that. We realized it wasn’t gonna work because to make a proper one you actually have to have some of the leaves go underground which wouldn’t have worked. Even though we tried different ways of fudging it and in the end what we had was something that was like two leaves that rotate and open and have these lights go and it’s all driven by pneumatics, so it makes this really satisfying, like “SHHH” sound.

So it’s not product design in the traditional sense of something that a consumer would buy. We went through basically the same process and it was just such a fun project. 

Dale: It’s consistent with what I will see, like at a Maker Faire that always interests me is, and I think it’s a new area it’s really interactive installations in a way, things that you come up to and say what does it do? It’s not a product, it’s an experience. It plays with us that thing, and a lot of times in a humorous way, it makes us laugh or it makes us associate something like fantasy.

 So what did you do when you got out of school, finished your Master’s program? 

Florentine: I went and worked for First Robotics, which, I think you, I’m sure you know about for anybody who doesn’t, it’s a great nonprofit. And so I was there on the engineering team as a mechanical engineer, designing the fields that the robots would play on.

One of the fun things for me was like during the interview they were like, oh, we saw you also do art. Recently we’ve started theming the games. How would you feel about doing art, as part of your job? And I was like, This is the dream job because one of the struggles I had when I came out of college before going back for my master’s, was finding a way to bridge that gap of engineering and art.

And a lot of companies were like yeah, but it says you’re an engineer on your degree, so you’re doing engineering. And so this case I got, I think 80% of my time was engineering, but 20% was also making it look themed and making it look really cool. So we had Steampunk field and like a space themed field.

And it was a really fun and fulfilling job. And then I left the US so I had to leave the job. 

Dale: That sounds like a fun experience. Maybe First Robotics could be a little more fun. Not just functional, but fun. 

One of Maker Faires I really like is our Maker Faire in Tokyo, and they have lots of robots, but they’re all in costume. They’re all characters and might be a sumo robot, it might be something along those lines.

But that’s very playful. And getting that sort of connection together of the play and the function is nice. 

Florentine: That sounds really cool. 

Dale: So you moved to Israel at that point 

Florentine: Ireland first, yeah. Ireland. Okay. And then as in Israel spouse is in academia, so we move around a lot.

And we’re gonna be moving again. Shortly as well, so yeah, that was actually when we found out we were moving again from Ireland to Israel, that’s when I decided to actually try freelance just because I was starting to get a little silly looking for work. 

Dale: What kind of freelance work do you do?

Florentine: I’ve done some just engineering design. So like I worked on a race car helmet that like had a EEG built into it. And so that was a very interesting design challenge. But a lot of what I’ve been doing lately has actually been more in STEM content creation.

When I worked at FIRST, I really fell in love with STEM education. I was already moving in that direction with the book. And so with freelance what happened was actually I started making paper robots for fun with the micro: bit. And those sort of took off. 

I guess because of that, I got introduced into to a lot of people and organizations working in the STEM ed space for younger kids than what I was working with at FIRST. And so yeah, I’ve been doing everything from the project design and curriculum design and working on like different kits and stuff.

So it’s been a lot of fun. 

Dale: Let’s go into your book a little bit and then we’ll come back to maybe the education ideas. 

But so you just published a book a graphical book called Hex Allen and Clanksmiths. Tell us about your idea for that book and how it developed. 

Florentine: Yeah, so I came up with the idea around graduate school and I think part of it was just based on my own experience of feeling like I fell into engineering by lucky accident. Before I applied to MIT, I didn’t even really know what engineering was.

And then again, I think especially women are not necessarily encouraged in the same way. So I wanted sort of something that like made engineering fun and approachable and also just showed kids what it was because like again, I didn’t really know until college and even when I’d go home and tell people what I study and they’d be like, oh, so you’re building bridges?

I’m like that’s civil engineers, there’s other parts of engineering. Yeah. So I wanted to make a book that was showcasing STEM with a focus on engineering and kind of came to the idea of a fantasy world where engineering feels more like magic, to make the engineering centered and something that it is the thing everybody wants to do. As opposed to a real world where it’s oh, normal things. And then like magic’s so cool. 

 So I actually, the original idea was gonna be a graphic novel and then I thought that it would be too difficult to illustrate a graphic novel and thought, oh, a book will be easier to write.

I was wrong. Books are really hard to write and it took a long time. Whoops. Glad I didn’t know how hard it was or not sure would’ve attempted it. 

Dale: It’s true. A lot of things, isn’t it? 

Florentine: Yeah. So it went through a lot of iterations. What finally came out was like it originally had a, inverse wizard school kind of thing where it was like the engineering school that was hidden within like the magical world.

But what it is now is more of like a fantasy adventure where the main characters don’t actually have magic in a world where everybody else does. So they wind up having to use the secret mystical arts of STEM and engineering to overcome different challenges. Obviously the magic is all fiction and the adventures fiction, but everything they build is something that is actually possible to build in real life. Most of the projects are actually described in the end of the book. There’s instructions that are in the form of the main character’s design notebook. 

Dale: Nice. So you could build what’s in the book?

Florentine: There’s a couple of projects because one of the characters is the chemist where she uses more explosives. So those are not given instructions in the book. But even for those, I actually consulted a friend to just make sure I was getting the details accurate. 

Dale: That’s good. It is this challenge and like you could characterize a challenge of getting women into STEM, but it’s probably a broader challenge of getting more different kinds of people into STEM, right? That for some people it looks like a great space that as you turned on to it — a place to explore an adventure. Other people, they get pushed away as almost you did too. That’s not for you. You won’t like it. You get told those things. And it’s just like, how do you swing people in that little space where, be open to what’s there. People say, oh, it’s hard. You won’t like it. It’s not so much they’ll say it like, you don’t have the ability to do it, but you won’t like doing it, which is a preference more than a statement of talent.

Florentine: I was actually just having a conversation with somebody yesterday who she was saying that, the issue for women as well as a lot of underrepresented minorities isn’t just the pipeline, but also like you get to the stage where you’re maybe finally in this career and people are still getting treated differently or judged, for who they are and not their qualifications or told they’re not qualified when they already have more qualifications than a lot of people.

The place I’m focusing on is the pipeline, cuz that’s where I feel my skillset suits. But I do think it’s definitely a broader problem. 

Dale: And pipeline, you mean kids in school that choose to focus on STEM subjects. 

Florentine: Exactly that. Because especially a lot of them even get lost.

I think middle school is usually commonly cited as the age where a lot of again mostly girls start to lose interest or feel like, for whatever reason or another and their scores start to drop comparatively to guys. And one of the things that I’ve loved actually doing a lot of the freelance I’ve been doing, especially with the micro:bit, is I’ve seen, like you were saying earlier, how it, some people are just like, oh, you’re good at math, go into engineering.

But with a lot of the stuff I’ve been seeing that’s more maker oriented, it’s become more of this creative free-form activity that’s more hands on and suddenly, I feel like you don’t see a lot of the discouragement and more of the encouragement of wow, you made this really awesome thing.

And approaching STEM in a whole bunch of different ways that are all equally valid. Making a robotic pet is like a super cool, fun thing that might appeal to some kids more than like pencil and paper, textbook math. 

Dale: And I think what you’re describing is that there’s a lot of different ways and a lot of different expressions of this rather than the straight, narrow road sometimes, which STEM looks like. It’s like you gotta align with that and you have to do what everybody else is doing.

 And I think making opens it up. And says there are a lot of different ways and you can also think of yourself as having strengths and weaknesses. You’re good at some things. But there are other things that you wanna improve on, but you’re part of a community that can help you get through certain challenges as well your colleagues can help you address some of your weaknesses.

Florentine: Yeah, for sure. One of the makers I like talking to a lot who was on the cover of your magazines is Jarvon Moss or OddJay. And one of the things that I find amazing about him is he’s always, he is oh, I need to learn facial recognition to build this cool new robot.

I’m just gonna ask my other maker friends and I’m gonna learn how to do it. Yeah. And it’s just like that attitude of there’s this great community and I’ll learn, I’ll be able to do it. 

Dale: I think if you probably saw a bit in FIRST, this idea of being part of a community, a part of a team as opposed to just this is a highly competitive individual academic pursuit I think can make a difference in how people consider this, that they belong, they can achieve both their own goals and also some goals in common with other people. 

Florentine: Yeah, definitely. I think one thing I would hear a lot from coaches and mentors would be, oh, this student struggled academically and then blossomed when they joined the FIRST team.

Yeah. I think part of that was just for some kids it’s harder to learn in like the more traditional setup and having the team and the hands on aspects and all that, it clicked with them a lot better. 

Dale: You could make the argument that every job out there intersects with technology and increasingly with art and so getting familiar with things, which might be at the core of problem solving is something that’s a pretty generalizable skill. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the furniture business or in SpaceX, you have these challenges ahead and they’re pretty interesting challenges.

Florentine: Yeah, definitely. I think I found a lot of the process that I used to write a book was the same sort of mentality I approached an engineering or a maker project, of design and iterate. And I think to your point also what do you do for kids especially, I think one of the messages I took from from product design originally, but applies to making, applies to so many things is the acceptance of failure as part of the process. And that’s something that I try and get through in the book as well, which is like, almost nothing you make is going to work the first time. And so that’s where the whole like iterative process comes in of try it again. Try and learn from what you did wrong. If you need to do back of the envelope math to help you, that’s one more tool in your tool set. Sometimes it’s faster to just build it. And I think that is one thing that I’ve been seeing when I’ve been working with like STEM educators, is that they’re bringing that mentality to the classroom.

The other thing that’s important is some schools have access to amazing maker spaces that have 3D printers, laser cutters, like whole electronic labs. And some don’t. And teachers have asked what do we need to do to get started with a maker space on a minimum budget?

And the answer is just make. 

Dale: I always thought there’s an organic model for maker spaces, which is, teacher once said, I sent a note home to parents and said, just send me anything that they’re discarding and we’ll put that in and organize it in bins for kids to make stuff with it.

And especially with younger kids, it’s just, like you said, art experiences or assemblage and collaging and things like that. It really is the practice of making, of doing this practice over and over with different materials, different tools maybe as it, as you, in high school or later, you begin to get access to more powerful tools.

But that’s not where you start. And in fact, I, and this might relate to your book a bit, I’ve often thought that sketching is one of the ways, how do you take an idea that’s working in your head and express it so that someone else can see it? A rough sketch is a great way to do that.

Florentine: Yeah, definitely. So that actually is a big thing in the book of the main character starts by sketching out all these ideas and she very rarely builds them and when they do they fail because she feels discouraged the first time they fail. And she gets bullied cause she doesn’t have magic like everyone else.

And so part of her character arc and meeting these other people, the Clanksmiths who have got experience in STEM and engineering and science is bridging that gap from, oh, you, you’ve already been thinking about problem solving when you’re drawing these things out. Here’s the process to actually go and make them, and here’s the confidence to understand that it’s okay that it’s not gonna work the first time.

And then even in real life, one of the things that like was drilled into me with the ideation process of like brainstorming is draw the ideas down. They might look like chicken scratch. That’s okay. Just drawing it down will help you start to visualize it and will help you communicate the ideas while, even if it’s just stick figures, 

Dale: It requires to make choices. And that’s part of how you get it to be real. It can’t be everything. It has to have some shape to it and things. That’s a really good point. I’m glad that to see that’s in your book. 

Florentine: A lot of what I learned at MIT and what I even, and at FIRST, in everything I tried like putting that into the book in a simple way for kids. So it’s it was something that was constantly on my mind for a while of like, how do I distill all these concepts? 

Dale: That’s great. Give us some more information on the book. It’s available. It is looks like it’s available in the usual places. But it’s categorized under juvenile fiction action and adventure. So you in the young adult area. 

Florentine: Yeah, like middle grade, which is like eight through 12. Eight through 14, yeah. Hilariously the UK Amazon algorithm categorized it in the tool section because the title is Hex Allen.

Dale: That’s funny. Good. Do you think you’ll do more books? 

Florentine: Yeah, I originally, like I said, I been planning to do graphic novel and chickened out from the amount of illustration. And I went back and read the original script and was like, oh, this is actually pretty hilarious.

So when my book originally got postponed because of Covid and so I decided to pitch the graphic novel. And now I’m working on that as well. And it’s similar like bringing the STEM into the story. 

Dale: Same characters? 

Florentine: Different characters, different plot, but like still the STEM thing.

Dale: And you’ll continue to do freelance work?

Florentine: Yeah, I’ve been doing freelance for two years, so I’m figuring out like where I want to be. Everything I’ve done I’ve enjoyed so far. So I’m just look see where this goes.

Dale: I just think we’re all aligned in trying to really get more kids exposed to this hands on. 10 years ago I felt like there was a dearth of this in education meaning hands on had been left behind somehow.

And that focus on testing and other things, a desire to be efficient in education has led them away from hands on. And when the teachers and others get back to it, they realize this is how kids learn and they really like learning this way and they do well. It really motivates them to to learn subjects that otherwise they might not.

And again I’ve been talking to someone recently that.

Florentine: Yeah. And it’s also more concrete than test is like right or wrong, but if you’re building or making something, I think you might have an idea of what your right or wrong is, but it’s not concrete in that way.

Dale: The other thing is things like understanding, just understanding science and engineering might take a lifetime really, it’s really big and hard, doing something, you can. You can get some result that is maybe not the result you expected. Maybe it’s not perfect, 

Florentine: but you learn along the way, 

Dale: parallel path.

Like when people lecture us, we don’t often understand what they’re talking about. We might over time, but when we’re doing stuff, we have our own sense whether we get it or not. 

Florentine: At least for me, also like having, so for me it’s more fun learning as part of the process. If somebody’s go and learn about resistors in a vacuum and I just have to read a textbook. It goes in one ear and out the other. If I’m building something and I’m like, oh, now I need to figure out how to use resistors, then I actually have a reason to learn it. And it becomes a lot more fun.

Dale: Exactly. It’s applied learning and. And we live in an era where you can command information from anywhere, at any time to learn something. But the context of building something and saying, oh, I’m trying to work on a circuit. Where does the resistor, what kind of resistor I need?

That’s, a real specific task. That you can figure out.

I appreciate talking to you today, Jasmine. Is there any final thought or is there something I didn’t cover that I should have with you? 

Florentine: Oh man. I think that covered a lot. I guess the overall message of everything is anyone can do STEM regardless of their gender, their race, their background and I think that’s what I really try to communicate with everything that it shouldn’t be this scary, oh, math it.

Yeah. It’s core, it’s creative problem solving, and that takes so many different forms. 

Dale: And everybody has the ability to do it. 

A pleasure to talk to you today and I wish you well with the book, and it is. Hex Allen and Clank Smiths. If you have a young person in your life, please go out and check it out.

And it’s great to see books out there that are a little bit of fantasy, but also grounded in the reality of making things. A nice combination there. 

Florentine: Cool. Thank you so much.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty