A maker, tinkerer and online celebrity, Sylvia has attracted more than 1.5 million YouTube views of the show she produces and hosts, the Web-based “Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show.” She is sought after for speaking engagements, visits maker fairs and even addresses TEDx conferences.
Last week she won a silver medal at an international robotics competition. And on Monday she took part in the White House Science Fair, where President Obama tested her latest project, a robot that paints.
Not bad for an 11-year-old.
With her father, James Todd, filming her, Sylvia uses puppetry, theme music and her home as a laboratory to demonstrate how things work. She makes science fun, mostly by having fun herself.
An audience of fellow makers, especially science-minded parents and children looking for projects, follow her D.I.Y. episodes — 19 so far — on circuit boards, sidewalk chalk, rocket ships and her favorite, an LED shield.
In one episode, Sylvia made dough that can conduct electricity. The salty dough, when mixed with water, acts like wire to allow electricity to flow through it, while a second batch of dough made with sugar acts like insulation and resists electricity. Sylvia used the conductive dough to light up LEDs, make noise and run motors.
Her most popular episode, on copper etching, attracted more than 200,000 views. Her fans learned how to create a circuit board and a copper pendant.
And her latest continuing project, though not yet a subject on her show, is a robot that can paint. She showed it off at the White House Science Fair, an invitation-only symposium for 100 students that is hosted by Mr. Obama, who views and comments on the students’ projects.
The president tried out her watercolor robot, doodling “Go STEM” — the acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — on an iPad. The robot painted his doodle, which Sylvia said she would frame.
“I shook his hand twice!” she said. “And he picked up a printed version of the White House logo that my robot did.”
Sylvia’s celebrity comes from her YouTube series, which she produces and hosts. It is a family collaboration — her mother, Christina, for instance, came up with the pendant idea — but is distinctly Sylvia. She can be age-appropriately silly, but she takes her projects seriously.
“Ever since I was really young I liked destroying stuff,” Sylvia said. “I’ve always been interested in making and doing things hands-on.”
The seeds for the show were planted when Sylvia was 5, and she and her father attended the Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif., an annual event organized by Maker Magazine that celebrates makers and their projects. Two summers ago, Mr. Todd began videotaping Sylvia’s demonstrations, as a summer project. “We just wanted to do something fun,” Sylvia said.
The popular blog Boing Boing reported on their first episode. Then Tech Crunch, Jezebel and other sites followed with praise. Make Magazine hired Sylvia to produce some of her episodes for its Web site.
Mr. Todd, 29 and a high-school dropout and Web developer, shares a tinkerer’s spirit with his daughter. (“If you do the math, I was young,” Mr. Todd said of Sylvia’s birth. “Too young,” she chimed in.)
“There was no formal maker movement when I was a kid,” Mr. Todd said. “If there had been, I would have been part of it.”
He and Ms. Todd have three other children, ages 3, 6 and 8, and he is the family’s sole breadwinner. Money is tight, and most of the science kits that Sylvia uses in her videos are donated to her. She raises money online to pay for some of her trips.
For the White House Science Fair, for example, Sylvia and her father created a campaign on a site calledgofundme.com. Two dozen well-wishers donated, and Sylvia was able to raise close to $2,000 for her trip to Washington.
“I would say we spend maybe $100 a year,” Mr. Todd said of the episodes. “We don’t have a lot of money for this; really, it just takes time.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 23, 2013
An earlier version of this article misquoted Sylvia Todd at one point. She said, “Ever since I was really young I liked destroying stuff” — not “Ever since I was really young I liked distorting stuff.”