November 27, 2011
Science Kits for Girls? Mystic Crystals? Say What?!?
Posted by Evelyn Mervine
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.
I agree with you but this is reality and we can’t change it. It will most likely go even worse than that. These kits are designed to attract new customers. Their business wouldn’t be very good if they focus on nerdy science geeks only. So they want to attract boys who like cool, weird, etc. stuff. And they want to attract girls who like anything beauty related. I don’t think that this is just a stupid stereotype and girls are actually not like that. My own daughter likes barbies, lipsticks, and beautiful dresses although she is only five. Neither me nor my wife care about this stuff. She just somehow picked it up naturally and she is not the only one. Producers of these kits make what their customers wish to buy. If they want magic crystals, that’s what they get. It is that simple.
Well, marketing is kinda weird. They do try to figure out what the market wants, but they also get mixed messages and end up focusing on the wrong aspects. “I like the ABCD thing better than the EFGH thing, because I like AB (even though I don’t like CD) and I dislike EFG (though I love H).” “Great! We’ll make more BCD things and some ACD things.” “Sigh….”
From everything I’ve read over the years, though, distinctions between the genders exist, and are not negligible. (I recall reading of an attempt to make a gender-neutral playhouse, which ended with the girls playing house while the boys catapulted the stroller off the roof.) Therefore I could see these points:
1. The terms “icky” and “weird” probably attract most boys, but few girls. Our reaction to terms is very different.
2. The genders react differently to colors. I would say that boys appreciate less nuance, though I’ve long wondered if that is due to nature or nurture (and it appears homosexual men appreciate color on par with women). Also boys might have less appreciation for pastels, as they are “weak” colors in comparison to bold colors.
(I’d also wager that introversion/extraversion weighs into color choice at least as much as gender: I expect that my preference for dark, blue-spectrum colors to be related to my introversion, and it’s possible my enjoyment of gentle pastels is as well.)
My niece loves pink and I abhor it. I want to see people realize that you can make a female-oriented color scheme without any pink at all, and celebrate such choices as lavender, cyan, powder blue, light green, and magenta/berry. (Even the Minecraft texture pack created for girly players has a strong pink bent, though it’s got a good variety to it.)
So I guess my point is, it’s not that differences don’t exist, it’s that the ones that exist get mixed up with stereotypes, and then you end up with everything being pink and based on beauty products. (I can’t be the only woman who is 35 and doesn’t wear makeup except on rare occasions.)
It’s going to be useful to reverse a trend.
If you (or I) can get to the girls young enough, they can learn that science is Amazing and Wonderful and full of its own special Magic that is Logic and Chemistry and Physics and Geology. But if the girls have already been hoodwinked into the whole “Math is hard and why should you worry your pretty little head about science” rubbish that is being pushed like crazy, then *anything* we can do to reverse that is a start.
Begin by saying it’s mystical. Let them do the experiments. Then explain that a) it’s actually science, b) when people don’t understand what’s going on they tend to attribute things to magic and mysticism and c) but what *really* happened here is …. oh, and by the way, here’s some other things that are similar and oooh look now you can make pretty explosions and know where to find amazing crystals and calculate high level engineering equations to work out the exact stresses in that corset…
Seriously, I’m about to turn a part-finished engineering degree into a Primary Teacher degree with an emphasis on maths and science, specifically to bring girls *back* to loving logic, and to combat the insidious “princess” attitude. And if it means using a few pink experiments and sparkly dice for times tables – bring it on.
Oh – and of COURSE Geological Barbies will be part of the course!
I too am torn about this subject… I completely agree that the concept of girl-only kits is very disturbing… None of the complicated Lego kits I played with as a child was designed for girls. But perhaps if some of them were, I wouldn’t be the only girl in school playing with them? I don’t feel that I know enough about girl/boy psychology, but I admit that there seem to be differences. And while girl kits shouldn’t be only about beauty and magic, it is probably useful to have a few science kits out there that are not about monster trucks, evil tricks, or other means of destruction, but rather more constructional and positive and all that stuff some girls seem to be into.
Baking soda and vingegar make a small vanoco. Or try mixing cornstarch with a bit of water. It makes a putty type substance when you move it around in your hand but as soon as you stop, it turns into a liquid.
Yeah, the thing about Legos is… Legos doesn’t understand how best to market to girls. Though it HAS been trying.
Firstly, the way it’s traditionally been marketed has been exclusively to boys, with the result that few girls use Legos and few parents think to buy Legos for their daughters (especially in households where there are no boys to bring Legos into the household collection).
Secondly, when they do try to make girl-marketed stuff, they make… okay, actually some pretty cool colors: lavender, cyan, etc. I wish these colors were available in regular kits, though, because:
Thirdly, they end up making kits in which at least half the available pieces are single-use molded pieces that pretty much have to be used as part of a kit to build the specific thing on the box. There’s just no way to get a good general-purpose set of girl-marketed Legos whereby to build your imagination – that’s something the original giant box of Legos let you do.
I remember having a blast with the pirates and knights sets, making little bases using greens and browns, blues and grays, and doing impromptu plays or fanfics (I forget which fandom I was into at that age… that was way too early for Orlando Bloom… hmmm). Being able to craft buildings and hideouts and such was a key point of the enjoyment of Legos. Doing kit-only pieces is the wrong way ’round, and suggests that girls just don’t have the imagination to create neat things from scratch.
(Would love to see the “girly” colors available in more general-purpose sets. Ought to run off to Bricklink and see what pieces come in Lavender.)
Anyway, Lego needs to figure out, at some point, how best to market to girls, and it hasn’t got there yet. Offhand, I’d suggest a set with a good assortment of multipurpose bricks (the 1x4s and 1x2s and such), doors and windows, and plenty of minifigs, some children, with hairpieces. And some little fridges and cupboards, and a couple smooth flat (or mildly shaped) pieces for blankets and pillows; obviously they could build a lot of things that aren’t just houses, but after playing Minecraft for years now I want some functional cupboards, dang it. (Anyway, I get the feeling that girls would get more mileage out of multipurpose minifigs, allowing them to create plays with characters that aren’t just Darth Vader or Harry Potter.)
“This is reality and we can’t change it”? Tell that to the Suffragettes.
It starts with gender specific diapers and gets worse from there. But you should have been in our Girl Scout troop. Our last field trip was rock climbing.
Dear Evelyn Mervine! it was a very interesting blog. but if girls start to play with weird kits than definitely that weirdness and roughness will be inculcated into their personalities as its a part of boys personalities.
and that will have a catastrophic effects.
its the girls who have to look pretty and its the guys who have to rough, in order that the cycle keeps on running.
and remember it least i thank god for making girls like that, and i thank females that they make such beautiful things for men.
women are great as they are.
While I want to agree with Gillian and want to celebrate these girly kits as a way of getting girls into science, I just hate the darn things. Girly science kits (just like girly Legos) are usually much simpler than the boy versions (fewer pieces, no chemical names, nothing to get you dirty…). In my personal experience, having a girl-only option for a toy means that grownups may only be willing to buy those for their girls, and not the “boy” version (even when the boy version would be the default if there were no pink one). So then girls get the inferior versions, or they get frustrated about science because their toys are so freakin’ stupid.
I’m still bitter about that Lego pirate ship I kept asking for and never got. The pink beach house was not nearly as cool.
[…] you make science kits for girls, they should be BRIGHT PINK. (Was that sarcasm too thick for you?) Geologist Evelyn Mervine takes the whole sales pitch to pieces, pointing out the problem with segregating by gender and giving girls lame experiments as a kind of […]
I’m still bitter about the microscope and chem set I never got. Hate chem to this day. However, I did get great math and mechanical toys. Have better spacial awareness than most guys I know, and have always loved math.
Perhaps the girly stuff will encourage some otherwise sci-hating parent to buy the stuff. The girls can then take it from there to get more.
As a teacher who’s done intervention classes with grade school kids in the areas of science and math, this is just so wrong. It sends all kind of wrong messaging about how girls think about science–and more importantly, what they nee to learn. It is short-selling girls and their growing intellects. Granted, it’s really just marketing–trying to get parents to spend money based on their kids’ gender–but its messaging is really awful.
In the classroom, girls can enjoy science every bit as much as boys. The approach to inclusion for girls is to understand that many girls prefer activities that can be a shared experience with their classmates. Girls at this age are typically more socially advanced than their male classmates and if you can get them to engage their social skills along with their science learning, they’re all in. Let them laugh and giggle together until your nerves are shot, but they’ll be learning as along as you supervise them and keep them on task. In this regard they’re not really different from the boys, who are equally likely to get off-task when put into groups.
Then of course you’ll always have the girls–like the kind of girl I was–who are gifted, perhaps not as socially confident as her peers and will want to work independently or with a partner she’s comfortable with, in which case you just have to give her the materials and instructions and let her go. Same goes with the gifted boys. But usually when you let gifted students develop confidence through more independent work, they often naturally evolve toward another successful teaching strategy: having gifted students mentor their less science-enthusiastic classmates–not only does this peer interaction help both socially, it helps the less enthusiastic student feel more included, which improves their attitude, confidence and level of participation, and gives gifted students a chance to utilize and refine their own understanding through helping another student learn.
So really, teaching science in an inclusive way isn’t about making the science different for girls and boys at all, but about making the learning process accessible and enjoyable for that child at her or his stage of personal and academic development. I find there’s a strong bias in many people’s minds that views science as a solitary endeavor or a passive endeavor where the student simply absorbs what she or he is taught, either of which naturally would be less attractive to young, socially advanced girls who are eager to practice their social skills. But once you realize that it’s not the science, but our attitudes about how science is taught that turns so many girls off, the problem can be effectively addressed. No “magic” needed.
This reminds me of the whole argument of whether stuff like this is simply portraying reality or whether it is shaping it. Well I don’t really care, because promulgating an existing negative stereotype reinforces it even if it didn’t create it. Unfortunately these kits don’t come with a teacher to slip in some real science once they’ve been hooked by the pink frills so I think your rant is right on the money.
Society has it’s own set of values. They may not mean anything other than this is what we have been taught. Obviously your parents were way cooler than most and you grew up without adopting such values. I think the time will come for some of the changes you would like to see but it would be not so great if we went too far in that direction. For instance if we did not segregate sports it might be that many females would quit competing since males on average have advantages in size and strength. I was in the Sea Exlorers which allowed both male and female recruits. It was far better than the boy scouts. I like working with females maybe because I grew up with 3 brothers. I would have traded all three for a sister. Anyway I really enjoy your blog. It’s really the only blog I read.
Great post. The only kids in my family are my boy cousins, so I haven’t really run into this problem, though I love buying them really messy loud science kits on holidays — I’ll have to keep an eye out for things like this at the toy stores this season.
I am so with you about Girl Scouts! I joined for all of one meeting when I was in the third grade. They were planning a sleepover and a pool party instead of making fires and camping (which is what I was expecting.) I promptly quit.
And to answer the cheerful question: My favorite science activities as a kid were definitely the crystal growing kits, and looking for constellations, satellites and shooting stars at night.
I agree wholeheartedly with you!
As I posted on Mr. Phil Plait’s facebook post; I’ve been talking about science (and how much I love it) since I was able to form sentences!
My twin sister and I loved making volcanoes in the kitchen, clouds in the washroom, and playing with model dinosaurs everywhere we went.
I also wanted to join the boyscouts so I could learn to use a Swiss army knife, tie knots, go camping, and all that cool stuff. …we did girl scouts for… maybe a few weeks? It was SO lame! Just like the McDonald’s toys; lame beyond belief.
We did like Barbies better than the boy’s dolls (oops, I mean action figures), but partly because they made for better (and more fun) melee weapons in play fights.
If these girly science kits had been around when I was little; I would have lost all interest in science, immediately. Making crystals is pretty darn neat, I’m sure that making a bath bomb could be cool, but I’d rather they be part of one gender-neutral kit.
To those who say that it’s “just the way things are”, I say: think globally, act locally. Change starts one person at a time.
[…] It strikes me that there may be no need to separate the way we teach between boys and girls — my friend and geologist Evelyn Mervine discusses this point further — but I’ll also readily admit that there may very well be differences between the ways boys and […]
[…] It strikes me that there may be no need to separate the way we teach between boys and girls — my friend and geologist Evelyn Mervine discusses this point further — but I’ll also readily admit that there may very well be differences between the ways boys and […]
I agree. But it goes deeper than this – the use of gendered language in science that automatically marginalizes females… “he” the scientist, “mankind” etc…
[…] yet others in a sci-blogging village have already dissected this, particularly Evelyn Mervine (here), Phil Plait (here), and Janet Stemwedel (here and here and here). we could do small some-more […]
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[…] and perfume. My three favorite posts on the subject came from chemist Janet Stemwedel, geologist Evelyn Mervine, and astronomer Phil Plait. Here’s Dr. Stemwedel: In tandem, the messages conveyed by these […]