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Ruth Amos didn’t originally plan on becoming an engineer. In fact, when she was in secondary school in Great Britain, she wanted to be a lawyer. But taking an engineering class sent her on a totally different path.
"Since I was a girl, I was expected to design a jewelry box," she said.
But instead, Ruth invented the StairSteady, after her teacher challenged her to create something that could help his father and others with disabilities walk up and down the stairs. On the company’s website, the StairSteady is described as “a high quality fixed handrail and a sliding supporting handle that moves freely when pushed but locks in place when weight is applied.” The handle allows people to move up and down the stairs holding onto the secured handle. Once a person reaches the top or bottom of the steps, the handle can be easily folded away, so appearance is not compromised.
"I realized there wasn’t anything between a hand rail and a stair lift," she said.
Not only was her teacher impressed with her invention, but Ruth went on to win the 2006 Young Engineer of the Year Award in Britain. Her project also took her to Intel ISEF in 2008, which she describes as an amazing experience.
The StairSteady has really helped a lot of people who struggle with using the stairs, and it may even be the only exercise some get. A serious fall on the stairs can be the catalyst for many moving to a care home, where they are vulnerable to illness and isolation. But the StairSteady helps people stay safe while keeping their independence.
"Sometimes a stairlift is just not affordable," Ruth said. "A lot of people who use our products say it keeps them safe."
When Ruth began to gain attention for her invention, she started to think about why she never previously saw herself as an engineer. Growing up, she loved to watch shows like Robot Wars and Battle Bots, but the media mostly showed men being portrayed as scientists and engineers in the media. While she loved playing with Legos and making things, as a child she never considered becoming an engineer.
Since finding success with StairSteady, Ruth has given a lot of thought as to why there aren’t more women in STEM, and how she can help encourage girls to become scientists and engineers.
“People’s ideas are formed at a young age. The competitions I won were a big thing for me—I had a big life changing moment. But not everyone is as lucky. If you haven’t shown girls other options by age seven or eight, they don’t necessarily see STEM careers as an option,” Ruth said.
Recognizing the powerful role that the media plays in shaping the perceptions of young people, Ruth wanted to do something to inspire more girls in STEM. So along with her friend Shawn, she created a YouTube channel called Kids Invent Stuff.
Every month, Ruth and Shawn issue a new inventing challenge, encouraging kids to submit their ideas. Then they pick one to build and test. With this channel, Ruth hopes to show children what it’s like to be an inventor.
It’s never been easier to make things.
“Engineering means lots of different things to different people. Inventor is an easier world to explain. It’s about science, the arts, and thinking outside the box to solve problems,” Ruth said.
Along with her colleague Kisha Bradley, Ruth also recently launched the #girlswithdrills campaign. Through the campaign, Ruth and Kisha provide, underserved female students an opportunity to attend a free maker session, where they learn about how things work, perhaps inspiring them to become inventors. They fund the campaign by selling #girlswithdrills t-shirts – each t-shirt sold enables another young engineer to attend the session.
Her advice for today’s young inventor or engineer? Ruth says she is a big supporter of people going and making stuff. Go for it, she says, noting that there are some great YouTube tutorials out there to help kids get started.
“It’s never been easier to make things,” Ruth said. “Find a project and try to solve a problem.”
Ruth reminds young inventors that no design works perfectly the first time, even for her.
"Google is your friend," she said.
We recently caught up with Lina A. Colucci, an alumna of the Science Talent Search (STS 2008).
Congratulations to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (ISEF 2007) on winning her election to represent New York’s 14th Congressional District!