The GCSE inventor behind the StairSteady who became YouTuber with 60,000 subscribers to Kids Invent Stuff

When asked what she does for a living, Ruth Amos is able to respond with a delightfully rare answer: “I’m an inventor.”

It is a term she wants engineers like herself to reclaim and a title which, these days, allows her to do some pretty outlandish work. “We like things that an adult might look at and go: why would you build that?,” says the Killamarsh woman, 33.

“We’ve built a doorbell that fires popcorn at you. We’ve built a giant, furry electric dog car. We’ve built a seven foot dinosaur that mops the floor. We’ve built a giant electric toothbrush that cleans your patio and cuts down trees and strims the lawn in your garden. We’ve built a serial firing catapult.”

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If these creations all seem a little, well, childish, that’s because they were made as part of the YouTube channel Kids Invent Stuff, co-founded by Ruth with her colleague Shawn Brown to get youngsters aged four to 11 into what’s typically called engineering.

Ruth Amos, of Killamarsh, with her medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering.Ruth Amos, of Killamarsh, with her medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Ruth Amos, of Killamarsh, with her medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Having unexpectedly become an inventor at secondary school, Ruth has dedicated much of her career to getting younger people involved in her industry, and was recently presented with the Royal Academy of Engineering's Rooke Award for the public promotion of engineering.

Initially, she was set on a law career but had to take a technology subject while a pupil at Eckington School on the border of Sheffield and Derbyshire.

“I wanted to be a lawyer, I wanted to study at Cambridge - I had everything planned. But then as part of my Resistant Materials project, my teacher set me the challenge to design something to help his dad walk up and down his stairs. And so I ended up designing something called the StairSteady, which is a specialist handrail which replaces or goes above your existing handrail, a bit like a walker or a Zimmer frame for your stairs.”

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Not only was it a GCSE invention which she created aged 15 to 16 and was able to patent – the product is still available - but she was duly named Young Engineer for Britain in 2006. Ruth says: “I was kind of thrown into this whole world of engineering and looking back, I should have always wanted to be an engineer. My younger brother is an engineer, my younger sister went to uni to do engineering. We all grew up making things, being inquisitive about how things work, designing things, problem-solving. But it was only at that point when I had won the engineering award that I was like, oh, I could be an engineer.

Ruth Amos and Shawn Brown with their giant toothbrush invention.Ruth Amos and Shawn Brown with their giant toothbrush invention.
Ruth Amos and Shawn Brown with their giant toothbrush invention.

“Looking back, I couldn't see people like me in the media doing engineering. I grew up watching Robot Wars and Scrapheap Challenge, and there weren't that many women.”

She set up her own company but also became an ambassador for other people's projects, aiming to let young people know that being an engineer or inventor is an option.

Ruth met Shawn after he won the Young Engineer award some years after her and they would meet up at the Big Bang fair for budding scientists, and they had talked for a long time about setting up an outreach programme. Informed by two pieces of research - that there were more young people watching YouTube than mainstream television, and another showing that young people, particularly girls, formed their opinions around what careers they could do much earlier than was thought - they set about creating the channel for primary school aged children.

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They started posting Kids Invent Stuff videos in 2017 and six years later have more than 61,000 subscribers - those who opt to be notified about the latest content – and 2.7m views.

Ruth with the crocodile lawnmower made for the Kids Invent Stuff channelRuth with the crocodile lawnmower made for the Kids Invent Stuff channel
Ruth with the crocodile lawnmower made for the Kids Invent Stuff channel

All the inventions are suggested by children and created by Ruth and Shawn in videos which, although featuring plenty of engineering know-how, are entertaining and family-friendly.

“A lot of the young people who watch the channel, when we see them at events, they're talking about components in a way that you wouldn't expect five year olds to know about, but it’s because they're learning about it in the sense of: how are we going to make this carrot car, that fires out seeds, drive? How are we going to build a crocodile lawnmower? A giant rainbow unicorn that poops out jelly beans? It's the engineering in making something that is fun and makes you smile and laugh.”

They are getting around 10,000 invention ideas a year from children online and from those they visit at face-to-face events.

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“It’s really nice when we go into schools. I think students take it seriously because they love YouTube,” says Ruth, who lives in Killamarsh with her husband and son.

Next year, she will release a children’s book and although she can’t divulge too much, it will again be promoting the virtues of invention as a vocation. “I think the word inventor is maybe not used enough as it should be. I know growing up, if I thought of an inventor, I thought it was like Doc from Back to the Future,” she says.

“It's just really important as the UK has always been renowned in history for the things that it's designed and made. Obviously, not on its own, there are other places as well that have done that, but something that's really entrenched in our history is problem-solving and looking at things differently and trying to challenge ourselves in the way that we design and build. And I think if you'd have spoken to people maybe 100 years ago, a couple of hundred years ago, a lot more people would describe themselves as an inventor than they do now.

"But I think, actually, those skills that make us an inventor - creativity, problem-solving, thinking outside the box - they're the things that actually make us really employable long-term because they're the things that we do that make us different from robots.”

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