Put two cans of fizzy drink into water. One Classic and one Light. One of them floats, the other sinks. It’s magic! Sara Magnusson wanted her Experimentfabrik to give children the opportunity to be curious. But they must also be able to read, so today she’s working with tests to measure reading ability.
Creativity, energy and a get-up-and-go ethos are great traits for an innovator.
Sara Magnusson, graduate engineer in industrial engineering and management, and one of the Alumni of the Year 2019, has them all, and her work has been recognised with a long chain of awards. For example: Supertalent of the Year in 2013 (by Swedish magazine Veckans Affärer) and in 2015, the year she graduated, Future Leader of the Year (by Universum Awards).
Photo credit Thor BalkhedShe has a long list of everything she has got involved with through the years.
It’s possible that it started in her teenage years, teaching children to swim in Växjö. This was an early chance for her to discover how much fun it is to share knowledge and expertise.
Or it may have started when she discovered the universe and decided to study at Rymdgymnasiet in Kiruna, over 1000 km from home.
“Space is so unimaginably enormous. Thinking about it brings me down to Earth and puts humankind into a context. I was fascinated by it, and I didn’t want to wait until I could study astronomy at university”, she says.
After upper secondary school, Sara Magnusson bought a single ticket to China to learn Mandarin at Yunnan University. She was there for six months, and did manage to learn a bit of the language.
“Maybe that wasn’t the most important thing. I wanted to see whether I could manage to look after myself.”
Strong support for innovators at LiU
Sara Magnusson combined her studies for a master’s in industrial engineering and management with running her own business and holding positions in an employee association.
“I thought that it wasn’t enough to read about project management and entrepreneurship: I wanted to try it myself. And if you’re interested in innovation, Linköping University offers excellent support”, she says.
This is how Experimentfabriken was born.
Sara Magnusson started out-of-school activities for children interested in science and technology, and took on LiU students to supervise children aged 7-12 years in fun hands-on experiments, to marvel at anything that smokes, hisses or is in any way simply magical.
Sparkling chemistry show
“Science is amazing. And then you can never be really sure what’s going to happen when you do a chemistry experiment, for example. Quite often, the result is not at all what you had planned”, laughs Sara Magnusson.
But something always happens, and from previous experience she knew that chemistry was a sure winner. One of her projects at upper secondary had been to put together a sparkling chemistry show, which she would demonstrate for enthralled school pupils.
Her underlying idea was that they should become curious enough to choose to study science later on. Maybe they could even be encouraged to become engineers.
“Knowledge is not something you keep to yourself. Anything I know, I want to spread to other people.”
Equal opportunities for all children
Photo credit Thor BalkhedHer commitment is firmly based on ideas of solidarity and an interest in learning.
“I want every child to have equal opportunities. That’s not the case today, and much depends on the parents’ interest. I wanted Experimentfabriken to help the children themselves realise that science and technology are not only exciting but also important. And to develop their ability in problem-solving.”
The activities spread throughout Sweden, and as a student she was presumptuous enough to predict in an interview that the company would reach 20,000 children before 2020.
That prediction didn’t actually come home.
On the other hand, however, her job at LegiLexi has enabled her to reach around 100,000 children.
Learning to decode words
Photo credit _Thor_Balkhed“We have developed a free digital portal that teachers can use to test the reading ability of children aged 7-9 years. It measures how far the children have come in reading, and gives some idea of their strengths and weaknesses. It is just as important to know which children need some form of extra support as it is to know which children have advanced reading ability and need new challenges.
Around half of the teachers of this age group in Sweden have created an account, and gain access in this way to inspiration and teaching material.”
The role of chief technical officed at LegiLexi simply fell at Sara Magnusson’s feet – an offer she couldn’t refuse.
It is also completely in line with her philosophy of solidarity.
LegiLexi is a non-profit foundation without commercial, political or religious alignment. Its vision is that all children learn to read proficiently.
Good readers and problem-solvers
“Reading is the basis of everything. And all education is based on being able to read well. If we are to solve the societal problems we are facing, not least the challenges of climate change, we will need qualified technologists and engineers.”
Sara Magnusson has had reason to return to LiU in recent years, but in another role.
“We have taken care to ensure that everything we have done in building up LegiLexi is based on research and proven experience. This means that we have been in close contact with researchers – some of them at LiU – who are specialists in learning, teaching methods, and reading”, says Sara Magnusson.
The statistics that Legilexi generates are provided as feedback to the researchers.
“Anonymously, of course. It’s just great to be able to help research into the theory of teaching how to read.”
Sara Magnusson receives this year’s award as one of two LiU Alumni of the Year, in the auspicious company of Andreas Norlén, Speaker of the Riksdag.
“Well, it’s a great honour! I’m extremely content with the education I received here for my master’s in industrial engineering and management. Everything I learned at LiU has been really useful in my professional life.”
And the advice Sara Magnusson gives today’s students is probably the same advice that she should have listened to herself:
“Listen to the lecturers! Put your mobile phones and computers away: they’re just distractions.”
Maybe she should also add that it’s possible to improve your grades by retaking exams.
Running a company and active in employee associations
Photo credit Thor BalkhedHowever, she does not regret the outside engagements that limited her time for study.
In addition to the experience of having set up a company, she became active at an early stage in the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers.
She is today vice chair of the association, and when she was elected in 2018 the newspaper headline read “Super Sara elected to top board post”.
Super Sara has no clear plans about her future career.
It’ll probably end up the same result as one of the scientific experiments she’s done so many times.
You never know what’s going to happen.
Footnote for the curious:
Classic fizzy drinks contain sugar and water while the light versions contain a small amount of sweetener and relatively more water. The sugar makes the density of the classic version higher, which causes the can to sink.