Tinker the Robot Gets Kids Hooked on Science and Engineering
Kay Yang’s daughter flips through a Tinker the Robot lab notebook. Courtesy Tinker the Robot
The City of Riverside celebrates National Women in Small Business Month, and Kay Yang is a shining example of a local entrepreneur and engineer who rises above gender barriers. As a little girl growing up in Chino Hills, Yang remembers building a mini pulley system for her Barbie Dreamhouse. She and her dad would spend hours tinkering and problem-solving in their garage.
“I became an engineer because that’s what my dad and I did on the weekends,” said Yang, founder and CEO of Tinker the Robot. “He taught me aerodynamics by observing birds and physics by launching catapults. He made these subjects relatable and engaging.”
Yang went on to work in several industries, including biotechnology, defense, cleantech, and consumer products, making Disney Princess toys at Mattel. Inspired by her upbringing, Yang left Mattel seven years ago because she wanted to create a toy with more educational value. She set out to reimagine the way engineering is taught and make STEM engaging to a population that might not think these subjects are for them — especially girls. After learning what families want is an experience, Yang evolved the Tinker idea from a toy into science and engineering workshops and homeschool kits.
“My husband loves to say we hook them and then we teach them,” Yang said of her atypical approach where students learn to build something before the battery of math and theory lessons.
A student proudly displays her bright LED light in her lab notebook. Courtesy Tinker the Robot
Upper elementary through middle school-aged children engaging with Tinker receive a lab notebook, similar to a graphic novel, that includes a hybrid curriculum with instructions to build anything from a robot to a light sensor. Yang and her small and but mighty team launched a summer series this year for 4,000 students spanning 140 Los Angeles Unified School District sites, as well as 30 parks and recreation locations.
“It's not a stereotypical class where we’re lecturing,” Yang said. “We set up a build and encourage the kids to experiment. We’re there to guide them. We want them to make mistakes, raise their hand, and ask questions.”
One of Yang’s favorite things is watching students have eureka moments when a literal or figurative lightbulb goes off during a build. Yang hires teachers whose day jobs are technicians and engineers to make the experience more relatable for kids. This way, Yang said, students see the skills they learn can be explored forever as a solid career choice.
“We’re sparking students’ innovation, then letting them ignite on their own,” Yang said.
Yang is a member of ExCITE Riverside Incubator, and she credits its mentorship resources with propelling the company forward. Tinker the Robot placed second at the 2022 Riverside Fast-Pitch Competition and advanced to the regional finals.
Kay Yang celebrates her 2022 Riverside Fast-Pitch Competition win with Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson. Courtesy Tinker the Robot
“So much of what you’re trying to accomplish as an entrepreneur, you do alone,” Yang said. “But if you work within a community, you’re so much stronger. That’s what ExCITE provides.”
One of Yang’s goals is to pilot a program within Riverside Unified School District as a way to become even more embedded in the City’s robust entrepreneurial culture and conscience.
“Leaders in Riverside are always thinking about the future and how to create a competitive advantage for the community,” she said.
What’s next for Tinker is an engineering take on “The Magic School Bus” series for kindergarten through second graders, and programming for Riverside-based nonprofit C3 Initiative to get 1 million minority youth exposed to coding.
“We are proud to support Kay Yang, whose entrepreneurial spirit not only drives our economy forward but inspires the next generation of STEM professionals,” said Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson. “Tinker the Robot demonstrates it’s never too early to lay the foundation students, especially girls, need to pursue and exceed in science and engineering.”
For more about Tinker the Robot, go to www.tinkertherobot.com.
A Tinker the Robot workshop. Courtesy Tinker the Robot