Lukas Flippo

As many Yalies grapple with how to spend their newfound time indoors, one first-year student has spent her time in quarantine developing a company that sends science-themed kits to the homes of school-age girls.

This past week, Whitney Bowen ’23 launched the website for Fem ’n STEM, a company that sells science-themed boxes with materials and instructions for various experiments. While the initial idea behind Fem ’n STEM came from her involvement in high school science clubs, Bowen has developed the company’s business model and designed the website in quarantine within the confines of her home, with the help of family members.

“When [the COVID-19 crisis] began to shut down the country, everything transitioned,” Bowen said. “My classes were online, the dining hall was my kitchen, my dorm was my childhood bedroom. I found that the one thing that wasn’t transitioning very well was extracurriculars.”

 

Bowen — a prospective Global Affairs major on a pre-med track — spent three hours per week on campus this semester volunteering in the pediatric oncology unit at Yale New Haven Hospital. She said that in quarantine, she has felt unable to replace that time with a meaningful at-home activity. She speculated that for many families with elementary and middle school-aged children, having too much spare time pose even greater challenges, particularly in families where online learning has been scaled down or ceased entirely. 

To create the kits, Bowen ordered bulk quantities of supplies used in classic kids science experiments, like creating magnetic slime. To make the slime, Bowen said, a child would only need about a tablespoon and a half of iron oxide — yet the ingredient is typically sold in 20-pound bags at minimum, making it impractical for families to order such supplies themselves. 

She said her goal is to pack her kits with every ingredient and material necessary to conduct the experiments — even glue and vegetable oil — to meet the challenges of the pandemic because it is often not possible for families to run out to the store for supplemental supplies.

“The market I’m trying to capture sort of exists because of quarantine, because parents are working from home and need distractions for their kids, and a lot of kids don’t have online learning, but also want something entertaining,” Bowen said. “It’s sort of a nice compromise because it’s educational, but it’s also just fun.”

Bowen’s current business model sells the kits on a box-by-box basis on a website she designed herself. Initially, she hoped to create a subscription-based service for families to receive boxes on a regular basis, but the global supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 crisis made the model impractical. The first kit is called “Get Crazy With Chemistry,” and she said she plans to design space and earth science-themed kits next. 

Bowen said that she is not yet sure whether it will be feasible to expand her team and continue operating Fem ’n STEM from her dorm in New Haven in the fall, but that she hopes it will be. 

The Falls Church, Virginia, native said that her experience in high school helped inspire her work today. As a sophomore, she formed an all-girls robotics team, who competed alongside coed and boys-only teams and, she said, often faced open skepticism at competitions about their merits and abilities. Then, in 2017, her team successfully advocated for the Afghan All-Girls Robotics Team to be allowed entry into the United States after their visas to participate in a Washington robotics competition were denied. 

Her junior year in high school, Bowen and current Yale classmate Haley Prince ’22 founded a club at their K-12 school to engage female students in the sciences, also called Fem ’n STEM. 

“If you look at a kindergarten class, interest in being an astronaut, or being a doctor, is 50-50 across the board between little girls and little boys,” Prince said. “Every year of middle school, there’s a drop off, which is interesting, and then by the time you get to high school, the STEM areas are really really dominated by boys, which makes it even more daunting for girls.”

The two worked with a group of friends to create a program designed to generate excitement about the sciences in the younger grades and prevent a decrease in gender equity in the field. During lunches and free periods, they visited girls in elementary school classes and conducted fun, simple science experiments, like making cotton candy out of jolly ranchers. In the middle and high school meetings of the club, Prince said, they would often order pizza and discuss issues of gender equity in the sciences. 

Bowen said that both her work in high school and her new company aim to close the gender gap in STEM by giving girls access to “fun and engaging science” at a young age, so they can develop interest in the field “before a bias might set in.”

“It is essential that all students but particularly girls, engage in fun and engaging STEM activities,” said Mary Jarratt, Bowen’s high school advisor who helped to develop Fem ’n STEM. “From my experience teaching, most girls decide before sixth grade that they are “not good” in the STEM fields. This perception can be overcome by the type of offerings that the Fem ’n STEM club and business provide the young girls.”

According to the American Society for Engineering Education, men earn almost 80 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science.

Olivia Tucker | olivia.tucker@yale.edu