Ruth Amos is an inventor and creator of StairSteady, a high quality fixed handrail and a sliding supporting handle that moves freely when pushed but locks in place when weight is applied. This invention won Ruth the Young Engineer for Britain award in 2006. Ruth is also the director of Kids Invent Stuff, a YouTube Channel aimed at directly engaging children and young people with STEM subjects.
“I started to realise there was a gender imbalance in engineering when I was asked a weird question on a morning TV show by a male presenter in an all-male studio. He said: “I must add, you don’t look like an engineer, you look like you should be in media.” I think I was 16 and very shocked: It was the first time I’d ever been told that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something, or that something wasn’t expected of me because I was a girl.”
From law to engineering
I went to a very normal state school in Eckington, which is not that far away from currently where I live. When I went to school, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but then, when I was doing my GCSEs, I took resistant materials and my teacher sent me the challenge to invent something to help his father. I ended up inventing something called the StairSteady.
That was quite a life-changing moment in a way because as part of designing StairSteady I was entered into an engineering competition and won. That’s how I got thrown into this whole world of engineering, it just took me off in a completely different way. I wanted to sell the product that I designed, so I started a company when I left school.
It took a few years to see if I could launch the product and gave myself three years to go back into education. However, at the end of those three years, I still had to test it and I’d got other companies and projects onboard. That was when I decided I wasn’t going to university, which means my education finished at A-levels.
Therefore, I just started creating, my product and these businesses, and it all spiralled from there.
No day is ever the same
At one point I was doing a lot more than I do now: I had quite a few companies and board positions and all sorts of things, but a few years ago, I decided to just focus a little bit on running StairSteady. We sell the product across the UK into Europe, we also licenced the product to be made and sold internationally; and then also do public speaking and bits of consultancy.
Then I have Kids Invent Stuff, which is an educational project based on YouTube around showing what invention is and engaging young people, particularly those at primary school age, in inventing and design.
Now, as I’ve gotten better at balancing things, I’ve taken on another trustee role, but my days are always very different. Sometimes it’s in the workshop making something or filming something, or it’s planning something or talking to sponsors, or it’s talking to mobility distributors who sell StairSteady.
It’s a mix and I like that no day is ever the same! Actually, the last time I had what you might call ‘a proper job’, where I worked for someone else, I was 21. I’ve spent quite a while now working for myself and doing my own thing, so I can’t imagine working from nine to five to someone else now.
Winning the Young Engineer for Britain 2006
I never really set out to enter an award or even win it! So, it was an interesting curveball to actually win one.
This journey started when I had to choose my GCSEs and I chose to do resistant materials. I really just chose it because it sounded fun, I never thought it would necessarily be my job or anything to do with my job at that point. And as part of our coursework we were supposed to design something related to storage, so I was expected to design a jewellery box.
However, my teacher told me about his father who’d had a stroke and needed something to help them go up and downstairs and he challenged me to design something to help him. Therefore, as part of that coursework, I designed the StairSteady.
When my teacher saw it, he made me enter an engineering competition and we went to the University of Nottingham, where the regional competition was being held. I won that and they sent me to London for the nationals, and weirdly ended up winning!
It was a very bizarre time and not necessarily what was expected, but from that I did a lot of media around engineering: the day after I’d won the award, I went on BBC Breakfast TV, the news, and the radio, and I suddenly started to see how important the product could be.
Gender stereotyping in engineering
I started to realise there was a gender imbalance in engineering when I was asked a weird question on a morning radio show by a male presenter in an all-male studio. He said: “I must add, you don’t look like an engineer, you look like you should be in media.” I think I was 16 and very shocked: It was the first time I’d ever been told that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something, or that something wasn’t expected of me because I was a girl.
I grew up with incredible women around me all the time. My mum was just amazing, and my parents had always supported me to do anything that I put my mind to. So, to suddenly be told that because I was a woman something wasn’t expected of me was quite a shock. And that was one of those key moments where I look back and think that fuelled the fire for my fight to show girls that they can be engineers, scientists, or whatever they want!
Engaging kids in engineering
There’s a lot of research around how young people, particularly primary school age, start to form opinions around careers really early. And there are lots of schemes for older children, which are great, but there’s always that question of “Why is that still not enough?”
A new piece of research came out which showed that actually, it’s because girls form their opinion of careers really early, when they’re seven or eight, sometimes even earlier than that, so they look at these things and think they can’t do that because there aren’t women there.
Therefore, Shawn and I (Shawn also won the same engineering award as me) talked about doing something that encouraged young people into STEM and showed them the exciting things that you can do with it.
We then realised that there were two things: First of all, we needed to target younger children, which means we needed something that engaged primary school-aged children; secondly, if you said the word engineer, there were some really preconceived ideas of what an engineer was, so we had to say the word inventor, because they will be much more related to creativity and problem-solving.
So, we decided we wanted to do something around inventing and start to really reclaim that phrase back from kind of the crazy scientist guy to actually everyone’s an inventor, about problem-solving.
We also wanted to do something that was really responsive. For us growing up TV programmes had a big influence. And nowadays, the TV equivalent is YouTube, kids watch YouTube. The great thing about YouTube is you don’t need a production company behind you, you can set up a channel and create content really easily and quickly.
So now we have a channel where we build and test kids invention ideas, and primary school-aged children submit their ideas to our website. Usually, we have different challenges running that they can enter sending their ideas or they can just send in a random idea anyway. Then Shawn and I have a look through, we choose what we’re going to bring to life, and we film the building and testing of it.
Some amazing things kids invented
There is something quite magical about a kid’s idea, There is never a bad kid’s invention idea. Before COVID-19 Shawn and I went into schools. The children would always come up with loads of ideas and they’re always great!
One that has stuck in our head was when we entered a gravity race and we built a gravity racer out of cake! Of course, it still had a bit of a wooden structure, but then, around the outside it had 140 kilogrammes of cake that we iced. We took it to a proper kind of gravity race (like a soapbox race). We hadn’t even tested the brakes and I was super scared, but we entered and raced down the hill – it was incredible!
A lot of the times we like to test the inventions in front of people or take them places. For instance, we’ve made a floating magic carpet to get across water we took it to a beach to test it. That was really good fun. Shawn wore a superhero costume that had wings that came out and then a helmet that had a sneeze activated flame thrower.
Some of them are memorable for that sort of thing and others are memorable just because they’re crazy things to do. For example, Courtney came up with this incredible idea to escape a tower which involved a crossbow that fires to create a zipwire. So, we went to a tower in Buxton, I’d just had my little boy about a month before, and decided to jump off the tower to get down.
We’ve also built crazy cars. Connor invented this amazing idea, which is, as you sit in the car or the seat in the back of the car, it goes up through the roof, so you’re travelling like two metres in the air.
Creativity is crucial in STEM
STEAM is definitely the new buzzword in the science, technology, engineering, and maths field, because arts has to be put in there as all these areas need creativity. So many things when it comes to technology and design need that creative element.
This is a different way of thinking because of the way that education sometimes streams things: you’ve got your sciences on one side, and then you’ve got your arts and creativity on the other. But for me, within industry, there’s so much crossover and I think it’s really important that young people and parents and teachers understand that!
Therefore, Shawn and I are really big advocates of how important arts and creativity is because a lot of the things that we use on an everyday basis, whether they’re products that have been designed, or their scientific principles, all exist because people were creative, they did something different! So many things come from thinking and looking at things differently, so it’s really important to include the arts, and that’s why we always want kids to do the drawing or a video of their idea. I think it’s such an important part of the designing process.
Getting girls to take up welding
Along the journey of Kids Invent Stuff and making more things, I rediscovered my love for making and using tools. In the past, we’ve done stuff around girls and women using drills and power tools, and about 18 months in, I discovered welding.
I’ve been aware of it because actually parts of the StairSteady are welded so every time I got on the factory floor, or we’d had conversations about the product, I was aware of weld testing and some of the regulations around it.
But then people told me that girls are really good at welding. I’ve never really thought I would be able to but I wanted to try it and I was really lucky as my dad had an old welder and let me have a go just to see what I thought of it. I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it!
Then I was introduced to the fantastic folks at Lincoln Electric, who make incredible welders and they very kindly offered to give me some training and give us a welder to use for Kids Invent Stuff. I’ve worked with them on and off for a while now. The more I’ve learned how to do it and the more I’ve met other people who weld, it becomes more interesting – it’s like sewing with fire!
One of the things that both myself and Lincoln are really passionate about is getting more young people into welding, particularly women. Therefore, when they recently launched a female PPE (personal protective equipment) range, I thought about instead of doing what they would normally do for launch, they could get some girls in to come and try welding!
It was a fantastic event and we’re going to do more of it, I think into next year. We’re hoping to do more of these events where girls and women can turn up and have a go and try it.
I feel very lucky to have had so many people who support me and have been given amazing opportunities. Letting these girls come and try welding at Lincoln’s training facilities in a socially distanced manner was amazing, and I thank them for their availability. It was a really lovely day.
Thinking about Christmas
In true kind of creating content style, we’re already thinking about Christmas. Our latest challenges will be around redesigning Santa’s sleigh which feels like absolute sacrilege in September.
We’re also building spy gadgets. It’s very exciting, I’ve always wanted to be a spy! It is a weird time still because of COVID-19, but we are trying to see how we can make things work, what we can do, how we can create content that really is useful for people in a time like this.