November 27, 2011

Science Kits for Girls? Mystic Crystals? Say What?!?

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Beauty Spa Lab? Seriously? Image taken from here:

Circulating around on twitter at the moment (I noticed it on Ed Yong’s twitter feed) is a link to a line of “Science Kits for Girls” products made by a company called Wild! Science.

In general, I am a big fan of science kits and simple science experiments for kids. When I was a child, I had a great time growing my own rock candy on strings in jars and messing up the kitchen with baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. For Christmas one year, my friend down the street received a dinosaur science kit. We spent a whole afternoon excavating some fake dinosaur bones from plaster, and we had a great time.

I think that kids can learn quite a bit from science kits (I really like the ones made by The Smithsonian) and simple science experiments with everyday materials. Kids also really like these experiments, which are fun and can (I hope) inspire a few kids to become scientists– or at least become more science literate. For my own science outreach in elementary schools, I’ve done classroom experiments involving materials such as mentos and diet coke, dry ice and water, and various sticky, viscous substances. When I demonstrate these and other experiments, the kids always have a great time– and hopefully learn a little bit of chemistry, physics, and geology in the process.

In my own research, I take labwork and experiments quite a bit more seriously, but I still enjoy them very much. Even though I am now a veteran scientist and my labwork has become routine, I still find myself smiling when my phenolphthalein indicator turns pink. I still enjoy watching beads of liquid nitrogen roll across the laboratory floor then vaporize after I discard the remainder of my cold traps when working in the carbon dating lab. I still find myself surprised and amazed at the microscopic spots I produce after my column chemistry to isolate various elements. I still take a somewhat childish joy and interest in attacking (destroying, really) my rocks with various acids during dissolutions. Labwork is hard work– and often monotonous– but it can also be very fun.

Ideally, science kits for kids should show kids the fun parts of science experimentation and labwork and should also teach a little about science and the scientific method. In a good science kit the science has to be done carefully, and in the right order, for the the fun part (the explosion… the crystal candy… the potato clock… the slime…) to work. In general, as I said above, I am a big fan of properly designed science kits for kids.

However, I find the “Science Kits for Girls”  manufactured by Wild! Science horrifying. Below are a few reasons why. The following is somewhat stream-of-consciousness. Sorry for that, but these kits make me upset. Also, I don’t have much time to write this post because I need to return to my real labwork.

1. Science Isn’t Segregated, So Why Should Kids’ Science Kits Be?:

Science is not segregated in real life (my own lab is a mixture of men and women), so why should it be segregated in science kits? To give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Wild! Science means well and wants to encourage more girls to become interested in science. I care very much about encouraging young girls to become interested in science, and I’ve personally benefited from targeted programs that encourage girls and young women to pursue science. My participation in Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) programs in both high school and college helped give me the foundation and confidence to succeed in science, first in college and now in graduate school. Female mentors– through both formal and informal programs– have helped me greatly during both my undergraduate and graduate studies. Without strong female mentors, I do not think I would be able to complete my PhD. I can understand supporting and encouraging young girls and women in science because– let’s face it– being a scientist is still more difficult for women than for men. Sexism still abounds, both in academia and industry.

However, I think that having segregated science kits for girls and boys sends the wrong message. This seems to suggest that girls and boys are better at “different” types of science or that they should approach science in “different” ways or that they think “differently.”  I may have had support from female mentors, but the science that I do– and the science that my female mentors do– is no different in approach or quality or anything else from the work that our male counterparts do. Do we have “girl” and “boy” physical constants? Do we have “girl” and “boy” chemical equations? Do we have “girl” and “boy” rocks? No, we do not. Gender shouldn’t matter in science (okay, maybe in biology, but it certainly shouldn’t matter if the scientist is a girl or a boy).

2. If You Do Segregate Science Kits, At Least Don’t Give the Girls Lame Experiments:

I really don’t think that science kits should be segregated by gender, but if you are going to segregate them at least make the experiments for girls NOT SO LAME. Why do girls have kits such as “Lip Balm Lab”, “Perfect Perfume Lab”, and “Aroma Art” (They even call it art!!! Nothing against art, but this is supposed to be a SCIENCE kit) while boys have kits such as “Physics and Chemistry”, “Hyperlauncher”, and “Weird Slime Lab”?

Forget lip balm and perfume, I want a hyperlauncher and weird slime. These kits remind me of two of my childhood disappointments: 1. the girl toys at McDonald’s were always much lamer than the boy toys, and 2. I wasn’t allowed to join the Boy Scouts.

Let me elaborate a little on that second childhood disappointment. I’ve always been very interested in nature and the outdoors. In my childhood neighborhood, a family of four boys lived down the street, and they were all enrolled in the Boy Scouts. I used to play with these boys, and I would sometimes help them with their Boy Scout projects. One day, I decided I wanted to become a Scout. However, I was not allowed to join the Boy Scouts, so I joined the Girl Scouts*. I was very disappointed that we mostly did arts and crafts rather than build race cars and make fires. So, I dropped out of the Girl Scouts and asked my mom for kayaking lessons instead. As many of you know, I recently married a South African, and he is a Springbok Scout (like an Eagle Scout). Since 1999 the South African Scout Association has been co-ed, so if we have a daughter one day she will be able to join the Scouts… and not the “girl” version of the Scouts.

To return to the science kits, I actually find the titles of the girl kits very disturbing. Apparently, girls are only interested in science related to beauty (“Aroma Art”, “Bath Bomb Factory”, “Beauty Salon”, “Beauty Spa Lab”, “Lip Balm Lab”, “Luxury Soap Lab”, “Perfect Perfume Lab”, “Perfumed Designer”, “Beautiful Blob Slime”) or pretty crystals which also have to be magic (“Amazing Crystal Lagoon”, “Magical Crystal Oasis”, “Mystic (Krazy) Crystals”, “Snow Flake Factory”). First off, adding “Krazy” in parentheses in-between the words “Mystic” and “Crystal” is just silly. Secondly, why does “girl” science have to be just about beauty and pretty crystals? Why should girls only be interested in science which makes them beautiful or which is beautiful? Girls and young women already have enough pressure on them about their appearance, thank you very much. Now they have to worry about beauty when doing science experiments? Your ability as a scientist has nothing to do with your physical attractiveness!!! Why don’t the boys have “Deodorant Lab” or “Muscle Building Lab”?

Some of the science experiments themselves actually don’t seem too bad. For example, there is a slime-making kit for both girls and boys. However, the girls kit is titled “Beautiful Blob Slime” while the boys kit is titled “Weird Slime Lab.” Why isn’t the boy slime blob handsome? Similarly, the soap-making kit is titled “Luxury Soap Lab” for the girls and “Joke Soap” for the boys. I think that some of the boys titles are actually pretty stereotypical as well. But why segregate at all? Why not just have the “Cool Slime Lab” and the “Fun Soap Lab” that are made for both boys and girls?

3. Woo-Woo Crystal “Science”:

Gender aside, I take issue with all of the names of the crystal science experiments. Why are the crystals “mystic” and “magical”? Do crystals have to be “mystic” and “magical” to be interesting or beautiful? When I write a geology paper, do I write about my “mystic” crystals? No, I do not. Crystals are neither mystic nor magical. The crystals in these science experiments do not form through magic. They form through CHEMISTRY and PHYSICS following scientific laws and principles. I thought the whole point of crystal science experiment kits was to teach a little about how crystals form (for example, slow growth for big rock candy crystals), not to imply that crystals form through magic! There’s already enough woo-woo pseudoscientific nonsense about crystals out there. We don’t need science kits to promote it, too! Probably the explanation books for these experiments do go into some legitimate crystal science, but the titles are bad regardless.Why not show kids how crystal science is beautiful and neat… and can make tasty candy?


Okay, my stream-of-consciousness ranting is over now. What do you think? Are girls and boys science kits a bad idea? Are the girl science kits as lame as I think they are? And, finally, to help me be less depressed and angry about these kits, what are your favorite science experiments for kids?


*Note: I hope not all Girl Scout troops are so lame, but the group I joined was pretty bad. Also, there’s the whole religious issue with the Girl and Boy Scouts, but that’s a different discussion.