Meet the Willy Wonka of STEM!
Mark Rober is a former NASA engineer, a YouTuber, and talks to us about engineering, toys and putting a robot on freakin' Mars.
I chatted with Mark Rober, a former NASA engineer who helped design the Mars rover Curiosity that’s cruising the Red Planet right now (hot). That alone is enough to land him an Unbelievably Cool Person Award, but Mark’s also a YouTube megastar who helped launch a new line of toys last year called CrunchLabs: gizmos mailed to your house once a month that you put together with a video tutorial from the man himself. It’s super cool, and he’s here to chat all about his powerful passion project. -NPH
One of my favorite things to do with my son Gideon is opening the next box of toys — perhaps too simple a word, as you’ll soon learn — from a company called CrunchLabs, which launched a year and a half ago. Every month we receive a disassembled gadget in the mail, with instructions on how to access a 15 to 30-minute video tutorial on how to put it together. The DIY toy could be anything — a disc shooter, a domino catapult, even a tripwire — and teaches kids (of all ages, even 50!) concepts of physics and engineering. And it was all started by Mark Rober, a former NASA engineer and YouTuber with almost 30 million subscribers, whose videos are filled with Super Soakers, glitter bombs and other mischief-making machines. Today, he’s here to chat with me about his cool new project.
Neil Patrick Harris: Okay Mr. Mars Rover, I’m dying to know…how’d you start CrunchLabs, and why?
Mark Rober: Jimmy Kimmel had me do it [laughs]. I had my YouTube channel with 22 million subscribers at that point, and I’d been on his show a bunch, and we ended up becoming friends. So, one day I was at his house, and he was like, “You know, you can only reach so many kids with the videos. You have to make something.” I kept thinking about that, and eventually I thought, “He’s right.” At the end of the day, I want to reach as many brains as possible with this message of the importance of STEM and science, and getting stoked about engineering.
NPH: Dang. Jimmy’s always got a trick up his sleeve. Maybe that makes him a CrunchLabs cofounder? I’m dying to hear more about your time at NASA.
MR: I was an engineer working on Curiosity, the Mars rover, for like 7 years. I was in charge of a little chunk of the rover: the part that goes out and digs in the sand, and then dumps it in the belly of the rover. That interface is my hardware, which is pretty awesome! It’s cool to think that something I touched and tested and designed is roving around on that little red dot in the sky, 90 million miles away. Then I came up here to the Bay Area to work for Apple, and then I started doing YouTube full-time. Then we started with CrunchLabs over a year and a half ago.
NPH: Tell folks about what they can expect when a CrunchLabs box shows up at their house and they open it. In my house, it’s the most exciting day of the month — even more than Taco Tuesday.
MR: Well, first and foremost, fun. That’s the first requirement, full stop. After that, I can find some engineering principle to teach to go along with it. The goal with CrunchLabs, just with my YouTube videos, is to hide your vegetables. You’re just having a ton of fun, and then before you know it, you’re learning about flywheels and conservation of momentum and fiber optics and stuff like that. So you can expect to have fun and you might learn something. We did a survey, and something like 90% of kids would rate CrunchLabs between an 8 to 10 on a fun scale out of 10. And 3 out of 4 parents say their kid’s excitement about STEM and wanting to be an engineer increased since doing CrunchLabs. So that’s great data to support our cause.
NPH: Topic change: What was your favorite toy as a kid?
MR: Spirograph. I’ve always been mathematically inclined, but there’s a side of me that appreciates art, and I thought Spirograph blended the two beautifully, making these really cool shapes and patterns that are mathematically based. Actually, there’s a CrunchLabs box that’s a drawing machine. The engineering principle that you learn is linkages, and the machine holds one of those four-color pens, which makes some really cool patterns. But each toy is totally different every month. And as you put it together, there’s an instructional video from me, so we’re kind of in the trenches, learning together.
NPH: Talk a bit more about the importance of STEM education. I kinda feel like it’s more important than ever these days.
MR: It’s super important today. I feel like we’re in an all-brains-on-deck situation — both in this country and worldwide. I think a lot of the advancements that have helped move our society forward and made our lives better come from the STEM field, [but] there are some big challenges ahead, and the more brains we have looking at these problems, and getting passionate, and kind of having this naive optimism about what can be done and accomplished…the better. If I can have any part in that, man, I’m here for it. That’s my goal.
NPH: K, bonus question. What’s harder: designing a Mars rover, or running a YouTube channel of 27 million subscribers?
MR: [laughs] As you might expect, they’re hard in different ways. In some ways, it’s easier for me to do the YouTube thing, because I’m just experienced with it now and I kind of know what I’m doing. Whereas when I was at NASA, I just felt like I was a newbie and trying to pretend like I knew what I was doing, but I was learning a lot as I went along! Having said that, at NASA, you have a team of 3,000 people helping you put a rover on another planet. Whereas with the YouTube channel, I generally keep things pretty small. But both jobs I’ve loved, and I’m grateful for both of them.
NPH: Maybe NASA should just start hiring the next generation of engineers from kids who play with your toys.
MR: Agree to agree, 100%! Maybe I should just pass them right along as the new class of astronauts.
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