The Parent Perspective
As Dale James moves the screws, gadgets and tools to get to her cereal on the kitchen bench, it’s clear that inventions have well and truly taken over the James’ household.
But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Dale is mum to two boys – Nathan James, aged 21, and 17-year-old Thomas James. They live in Christchurch, along with dad Ross.
And the reason for the gadgets?
Both Thomas and Nathan have been creating entries for the Skills Bright Sparks Competition for the past nine years – Dale believes that’s approximately 11 inventions that have been in various states of completion in the James’ home since 2010.
“Yes, it currently requires a very careful check of surroundings before we attempt to move our car out of the garage,” says Dale. “Unfortunately, the only workshop we have is in our garage, so the workspace spreads from our conservatory right through what should be our formal dining area, through the family room to the garage.”
But though the inventions and their myriad components have crept well and truly into all areas of the home, Dale says it is much more important to encourage the creativity than grizzle about the mess.
“As you can imagine, it is not the pristine show home house, but I keep reminding myself it is only for a season,” says Dale. “I can have a formal dining room in the future. Right now, I have something more precious – boys who are inspired to learn to give things a go and try something new.”
Nathan was the first James’ boy to enter Skills Bright Sparks. Dale says that after his first year getting involved he “was so inspired by what he saw other students creating, he went away every year with ideas and ambitions to create something a little more complex”.
Dale estimates Nathan, who continued to design projects from Year 7 right through to Year 13, created around six different projects – from a hacky sack that counts the number of kicks as you use it to a smart trolley app that helps you find items in the supermarket. He’s now gone on to study Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the University of Canterbury and set up a blog called Adventures from the South.
His younger brother Thomas was watching his older brother create inventions – and so he too soon became hooked.
“Thomas started creating his own projects when he was in Year 7 (2014) and he has created five projects so far,” says Dale. His most recent design won him the 2018 Overall Male Award in the Skills Bright Sparks competition – the Wheelie Drive, a device that delivers your wheelie bin out to the curb.
Not to be outdone, Nathan was the 2015 Overall Male Award winner for his iDispense Bulk Bin design for supermarket shopping – a bin that gives shoppers the power to choose the weight or the final cost of a particular bulk bin product, before the bin automatically dispenses the correct quantity.
Nathan admits there was a “good touch of rivalry” between he and brother Thomas growing up and both inventing for Skills Bright Sparks. “Sometimes we might end up using each other’s components for our project, and as you could guess, that didn’t end too well!”
But despite the occasional disagreement, Thomas says it was also helpful to have someone to confer with over designs and ideas. “Our projects were bounced off each other and criticised – but it was really good having someone making you think beyond the surface level.”
As for coming up with the ideas, Nathan says that though on occasion their concepts were similar, others were actually quite diverse – “We both had our own touch to the projects. With the different experiences that we have each had, some ideas have been similar but others have been radically different to one another”.
Support is key
Mess aside, mum Dale says the trickiest part of having kids producing inventions for Skills Bright Sparks is supporting them when they hit a rough patch.
“It’s when an idea doesn’t work, when they have blown up an essential component or when things just don’t go as planned,” she says. “They have to develop perseverance, tenacity, the ability to put setbacks behind them and move on. Those are traits they have had to develop.”
“It isn’t easy to guide them through those times, but the skills they develop will no doubt be an asset to them in the future.”
And the future is looking bright for both boys. Nathan is already studying at the University of Canterbury and would like to eventually work in a research and development role, prototyping and working with new technology – possibly further developing ideas that he has had for past projects submitted to Skills Bright Sparks – and “making new ideas come to life”. While little brother Thomas is keen to follow suit and head to university to study electrical engineering or mechatronics, something “that’s all about solving problems”.
Maybe working together in the future?
“I don’t think we would be the best working together,” says Nathan. “My brother usually thinks he’s right most of the time and won’t take much advice from me!”
Whether or not they do work together, at Skills Bright Sparks we have no doubt these young inventors will both go on to incredible careers.