Adventures in Ethics and Science

It’s the time of year when the mailbox starts filling up with catalogues. At the Free-Ride house, many of these are catalogues featuring “educational” toys and games. Now, some of these toys and games are actually pretty cool. Others, to my mind, are worse than mere wastes of money.

For your consideration, three “science” kits targeted at girls:


Archimedes got scientific insight from a bathtub, but he wasn’t required to wear eye-makeup to do it.

Spa Science
The kit offers itself as a way “to cultivate a girl’s interest in science” through the making of “beauty products like an oatmeal mask, rose bath balm, and aromatherapy oils”. Besides the “natural and organic materials” to concoct said products, the kit includes “a booklet that explores how scents affect moods and memories.”

Don’t get me wrong — there is science worth discussing in this neighborhood. But, the packaging here strikes me as selling the need for beauty product more emphatically than any underlying scientific explanations of how they work. Does a ten-year-old need an oatmeal mask? (If so, why only ten-year-old girls?) Also, I’m nervous that the exploration of scents and “aromatherapy” may be setting kids up as easy marks for health food grocers and metaphysical bookstores who will sell them all manner of high-priced, over-hyped, essential-oil-containing stuff.

Maybe the Barbie-licious artwork is intended to convey that even very “girly” girls can find some element of science that is important to their concerns, but it seems also to convey that being overtly feminine is a concern that all girls have (or ought to have) — and, that such “girly” girls couldn’t possibly take an interest in science except as a way to cultivate their femininity.


Our exposed shoulders tell you that you can do these activities without being a tom-boy!

Aimed at a slightly younger audience (of “young ladies-in-training”) than the last kit, this one promises to teach girls “the chemistry behind” perfumes. Setting aside my skepticism about how much real engagement with chemistry one is likely to get from a kit like this, notice that the catalogue blurb starts with the claim that “Everyone should have a ‘signature scent’!” The hell?! My seven-year-old’s signature scent is soap, thank you very much. Does the benefit of teaching a kid a little bit of chemistry outweigh the cost of convincing a little girl that she ought to smell like something other than a young human?

(And where are the boys here? Aren’t they supposed to be grooming boys to want to buy fragrances, too? Here’s a conjecture for the field operatives to explore further: Males are sold fragrances as a way to render females helpless to the males’ sexual magnetism, whereas females are sold fragrances as a way to smell acceptable. Plus, boys just naturally dig science, whereas girls just naturally dig laboring under the weight of gender roles.)


Would these products make me feel as pretty without those little tubes and pots?

Creative Cosmetics
Here’s another — substantially pricier kit — aiming to teach a little science through the mixing and application of “customized skin care items”, although again the assumption seems to be that only girls have skin that requires care, or that only girls need to be suckered into caring about science. Cynic that I am, I cannot help but wonder how much of the “important skin care and wellness facts” included with the essential oils, packaging, and instructions is devoted to actual science as opposed to cultivating an unnecessary beauty regimen.

Given that this kit “teaches them to make shampoos and shower gels, makeup, creams and lotions from common household items” — which, presumably, one’s household may already have — what could explain the high price of this kit ($60)? My bet is on the little pots and tubes and squeeze bottles — which is to say, on the part that has nothing at all to do with the quality of the skin care product, and everything to do with making you want to buy it when you see it in the store.

But surely, this kit really is intended to cultivate an interest in science rather than train new generations of consumers, right?

Honestly, I can’t think of a better way to make a girl in grade school question whether she’ll have any interest in or aptitude for science than to present her with a “science for girls” kit. The message seems to be, “Look, there’s a bit of science that will interest even you. (And go put on some lipstick!)” Heaven knows, we couldn’t even get girls interested in building Rube Goldberg machines, or launching water-rockets, or studying the growth of plants or the behaviors of animals, or blowing stuff up.

Moreover, it seems to me a kid could explore some of this same scientific territory without coughing up $60, or even $25. As a place to start, check out the American Chemical Society’s kids’ website. It has a set of activities around smell, including one about the relation between smell and taste, and one about conditions in which smell molecules can get up in your nose. As far as the connection between scents and moods or memories, most households with kids come equipped with a wide variety of items that smell. Assemble some of them, use a bandana as a blindfold, record some observations with paper or a tape-recorder, and draw some preliminary conclusions — that right there is empirical science at a reasonable price.

As well, there are activities to do with soap and detergent. This includes the activity Suds or Duds?, about what influences sudsing ability. The most exotic ingredients required for this are Epsom salts and Ivory soap.

There are plenty of activities with other focuses, too, and they strike me as blissfully ungendered.

Indeed, the Celebrating Chemistry website (which you can also get in Spanish) has free downloadable kids’ pages:

  • Celebrating Chemistry & Art
  • Chemistry Keeps Us Clean!
  • Earth’s Atmosphere and Beyond!
  • Health and Wellness!
  • The Joy of Toys
  • Your Home–It’s All Built on Chemistry

Most kids I know will find at least one of these angles interesting.


  1. #1 ScienceDave
    October 20, 2006

    I’m not surprised that this is what we get commercially. Regardless of motives, they want to sell as many as possible of their kits, and right or wrong, they think this is the way to get people’s attention. I’m encouraged to see any effort made to get science-oriented stuff for kids out there. It’s a separate, but equally important, thing to overcome the stereotypes, and I don’t mean to minimize it. But even a first step is encouraging, and tying the science to something children may already be socially conditioned to pay attention to might be a good strategy.

    Exploiting the stereotypes to catch their interest doesn’t justify exploiting the kids or perpetuating the stereotypes, so it’s a bit delicate.

    You’re doing a good thing, posting your reviews, though. I hope this gets picked up widely. The effect of parent’s being made aware of these issues can be to supply the feedback necessary to buff off the rough edges.

  2. #2 Karl
    October 20, 2006

    There are several other stereotypes acting with those kits. Do you notice the obvious one: all “white” girls?
    And, how about SLIM white girls, and what about BLONDE slim white girls?

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    October 20, 2006

    To be fair, I think the girl on the left on the “Creative Cosmetics” box could be non-white (in kind of a generic way). That box, though, is the only one with no blonde girls on it.

    If we want to pile on with the stereotype detection, though, let’s add “perky”.

  4. #4 Natalie
    October 21, 2006

    You know, I bet some of that stereotype “science for girls” thoughts are for the moms that are buying the Christmas presents. Yes, the girls at that age would be interested in any type of science, but will your typical mother be thinking about getting her daughter a bug kit? Or would a make your own make-up kit catch the mother’s eye as being a bit of science and still appropriate for “her little girl”.

  5. #5 David Harmon
    October 21, 2006

    Agreed on all counts… if they really must bring gender stereotypes into science, they could at least move up to the 18th or 19th centuries, and get the girls into botany or insect collection!
    Hmm… how about “Train your gerbils to do tricks!”

    OT oddity: A tobacco company just sent me “Flowers for my Birthday” — a card made of recycled paper with wildflower seeds embedded in it!
    Unfortunately, I live in an apartment. With a cat….

  6. #6 Frumious B
    October 22, 2006

    I wouldn’t buy these kits for a girl who was already interested in science, but if I were seeking a gift for a girl who wasn’t already interested in science but who was interested in make-up, this would fit the bill. In fact, I think my second cousin is a good candidate.

  7. #7 Zuska
    October 23, 2006

    I wouldn’t buy these kits for ANYBODY. I wouldn’t insult any girl with such a present. I wouldn’t pretend to any girl that this is a true science kit gift. I wouldn’t insult her by giving her a ghettoized science kit. Why do the boys get “science” kits, but she gets “science for girls” kits? No, no, no, that is wrong, wrong, wrong, no matter what your intentions or motivations. A girl who is not already interested in science can be gotten interested in science without resorting to ghetto science kits. A mother who doesn’t know much about science can still buy a science kit for her daughter that’s a real science kit. She’s able to do it for her son. Why not for her daughter? If this crap wasn’t on the market she wouldn’t be buying it. We must campaign against it and NOT support it in any manner.

    I would LOVE to puke on the shoes of whoever is responsible for this travesty.

  8. #8 Teague
    October 27, 2006

    I agree that this isn’t for little girls who already are into science, this is a gift you sneak under the tree for the girls who are into those hideous BRATZ dolls…or for boys who are really into dressing up in Mom’s clothes already.

    On the flip side, instead of seeing this as promoting the girly-girl stereotype, it could be seen as an effort to disabuse the girls-have-to-be-tomboys-to-like-science stereotype and doubles to advertise against the dumb-blonde stereotype.

  9. #9 mark
    October 27, 2006

    if it is for a girl then i would defiently drop the idea of buying..

  10. #10 Sophist
    October 29, 2006

    To be fair, I think the girl on the left on the “Creative Cosmetics” box could be non-white (in kind of a generic way).

    Only if “fake orange spray-on tan” is an ethnicity of which I was not previously aware.

  11. #11 Sarah
    October 30, 2006

    OK, yes, there is an assumption inherent in these toys that girls will not enjoy “real” science nearly as much as they enjoy making cosmetics. That said, I would have loved to get this as a gift when I was 11! Messing around with lotions and potions, how fun. Maybe I would even have gotten interested in making an exploding vocano next. Oh wait… that’s not “real” science either. What do we think the little boys are doing with their science kits, curing cancer? Last I checked, making perfume is a valid and extremely lucrative scientific enterprise. Maybe the assumption that creating (frivolous, girly) cosmetics is not science is the stereotype.

  12. #12 pdrydia
    November 1, 2006

    The bathtub science kit had potential. I bet there’s all sorts of colorful, goopy, foamy, slimy, bubbly stuff you can make in the bathtub, stuff that slowly or quickly dissolves, or maybe floats or sinks or stays partway through the water and the like. It could have easily have been unisex and had a much wider age appeal, at that.

    Man, I loved playing in the bath tub.

    Sarah: nah, girliness and frivolity isn’t the target here (well, it may be for some people, who are missing the point), but the issue is about laying the ground for and reinforcing stereotypes of females and the demands upon them. Mixing cosmetics is one thing, but the advertising (seven-year-old girls “need” their unique scent of perfume, for instance) reinforces the whole “girls and women can’t just be what they are without covering it up with something else” that’s already everywhere in society.

    I, personally, would have hated the cosmetic kit as an 11-year-old, but loved it as a five-year-old…but I hated science anyway. I didn’t become particularly involved in science until I had a personal stake in the matter, due to illness in my twenties, and my lack of interest in a ‘critical core subject’ hasn’t destroyed my life.

  13. #13 David Harmon
    November 3, 2006

    Sarah et al: Yeah, and so? *I* made perfume for my Mom at least once! (Just boiling down rose petals — I hadn’t heard about carriers or solvents yet.) I was probably 7 or 8 at the time.

  14. #14 cory
    November 5, 2006

    Chemistry sets have not been interesting since they were made “safe” by taking out nearly anything that could react with anything else in the kit. No more alcohol lamps. No more house-clearing noxious clouds. Those were the days….

  15. #15 SyntheticGenius
    December 9, 2006

    Amen Cory! I’m only in my early 20’s but the chemistry kit I got for my 8th birthday even had some noxious stuff in it! (3M HCl! 3M NaOH!) Now they have sugar, some salts and stuff that doesn’t generally do anything more interesting than grow some nasty crystals…maybe even fizz a bit.

    The only reason I would buy any of these kits would be as a joke for one of my friends in my grad program. (We’re chemists.) Also, *I’m* a girl but I would have been insulted to receive one of these after the age of 5. But then, my mom (though she isn’t a scientist) came from a family where 3/5 siblings got PhD’s in science so she was into the more hardcore kits. It also helped that my dad’s idea of science was “let’s blow it up!”

    But thanks for posting these…I know the perfect guy to give the first one to…

  16. #16 Odd Rob
    December 9, 2006

    I love the gag gift idea – I know a few post docs and grads who would ‘get it’.

    There are some bonafide gender stereotypes promoted via these toys (I understand why a serious professional would not like to take these toys serious), but trying to foster the scientific mind in a child takes creativity, and if this avenue works for some girls and boys, then perhaps we need to re-evaluate the value of a gender construct-free learning environment.
    Back in the day my dad would buy my sister and I those old Radio Shack 50 in 1 hobby kits and build yer own radios. My sis loved them even more than I and often took over my ‘projects’. Today she’s a career mom, raising a couple of little fairy princesses. She’d luv, luvvv for them to want to be doctors, researchers, buisness women, but she’s a great mom and knows they’ve got minds of their own.

  17. #17 Psychobunny
    December 9, 2006

    I’m in my early 20s too, from back when the chemistry kits were still interesting, and despite my constant begging there was No. Way. my mother would ever have let me have one. So, simply as a substitute for a real chemistry kit, I would have loved these sets when I was a kid. And having them might have stopped me from mixing every shampoo, conditioner, lotion, perfume, and cosmetic product in the house in my neverending quest to create newer, better products. :)

  18. #18 joolya
    December 10, 2006

    It’s kind of hot for slim blonde white girls (although, typically, the “smart hot girl” is a white brunette – see new James Bond for example) to have dorky jobs – because they are HOT! If you wear kitten heels and a mini skirt under your lab coat, it’s sexy. The hotness factor makes the dorkiness of her work acceptable – you know, you’d still want to shag her even though she likes Star Trek or whatever, cause she’s HOT.
    As in all walks of life, ugly and non-white girls need not apply.

  19. #19 Renee
    December 11, 2006

    40 years ago, what got me interested in chemistry was my Color Magic Barbie doll. When you put a solution on her hair, it turned from yellow to red. When you put another solution on it, the color turned back to yellow again.

    I was fascinated by this: what was it that made the colors change back and forth? It was only when I became a polymer chemist that I figured out that the hair was probably made from nylon. On the surface of the nylon fibers, there must have been a pH-sensitive dye, perhaps a pH indicator. One of the solutions must have been a pH 7 buffer, the other a pH 4 buffer. Hence the color change when one or the other solution was applied.

    Whatever the case, it’s what got me interested in what things are made of. Now, some may think this was a sexist way to get involved in chemistry. I don’t think it was.

    If the perfume/cosmetic kits sold above get across the idea that fun things are made from chemicals, and the chemicals are mixed together in certain ways to make these products, that’s fine with me. If these kits don’t get across these ideas, and simply focus on ‘let’s be our prettiest’, then I would say they’re much worth much.

    Are items that exist to aesthetically please oneself or others less worthy of study than items that are strictly utilitarian? Is a kit about perfume so devoid of worth, that it has nothing to teach, simply because we associate perfumes with women, and hence there can’t be anything of substance to learn about?

    In reality, the modern day perfumes and flavors industries rely heavily on analytical chemists to isolate and identify the scent molecules in essential oils. They rely as well on organic chemists to devise syntheses to manufacture these molecules. It is then perfume chemists who use both natural oils and these synthetic chemicals to formulate products. (BTW, I consider perfume chemists to be masters of formulation). How many people know that Chanel #5, one of the most successful perfumes of all time, was the first scent to contain significant amounts of synthetic chemicals, in this case C8-C12 aldehydes? The formulation of this one perfume was a major impetus for the search and manufacture of single molecule perfume chemicals. Should one consider this information to be devoid of science?

    This is something that has occasionally bothered me – an item or field is traditionally associated with women, hence it can’t have anything to do with science. And conversely, science or scientific achievements have had nothing to do with these items or fields, simply because the latter have traditionally been associated with women.

    Needless to say, when I was a girl, I would have been thrilled to get one of these perfume/cosmetic science kits.

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