STEM startup: Yale undergrad inspires girls’ love of science

Whitney Bowen ’24 founded a startup that aims to help young girls, also stuck at home due to the pandemic, to get excited about science.
Whitney Bowen ’24

Whitney Bowen ’24

When Whitney Bowen ’24 decided to take a break from classes at Yale earlier this year due to the COVID-19 crisis, she knew she’d miss many parts of life on campus.

Back at home in Virginia, she found chances to learn new skills virtually, and even became certified as an EMT. But she still missed the extracurricular activities, such as volunteering in the pediatric oncology unit at Yale New Haven Hospital. And she imagined that other students were feeling the same way.

So Bowen, a second-year student, founded a startup that aims to help young girls, also stuck at home due to the pandemic, to get excited about science.

Launched in April, Fem ‘n STEM delivers hands-on, science-themed kits for girls in grades 3 to 6. Each box contains all the materials necessary to carry out four experiments around a specific scientific theme, along with an engineering journal.

The first box, “Get Crazy with Chemistry,” came with instructions and materials to make, for instance, a lava lamp, magnetic slime, and bouncy balls. Girls follow experiments with the materials — which include vegetable oil, glue, Alka-Seltzer, iron oxide, and liquid starch — keep track of their experiments in their lab notebooks, and read about how the experiments worked.

The second kit, which will be mailed soon to coincide with school vacations, is called “Space is Stellar.”

The idea, Bowen said, is to give students an opportunity to explore science through fun, tangible experiments — a supplement to the onslaught of virtual instruction and activities most are currently engaged in.

And during a time when science, medicine, and technology are more critical than ever, there’s a real need for a larger STEM workforce, Bowen said.

There are lots of stereotypes around girls as engineers and in computer science,” she said. “With younger students, it’s easier to encourage them to pursue a subject before those stereotypes set in.”

Bowen said Fem ‘n STEM is the kind of resource that she herself would have loved as an inquisitive young girl drawn to science. While attending the Potomac School, a private school in Virginia, she and other upper school student started a science club for girls in grades 4 to 6. During lunch breaks, around 50 girls gathered to conduct experiments and watch inspirational films like “Hidden Figures,” about Black women mathematicians who worked for NASA in the 1960s. During her sophomore year, Bowen also formed an all-girls robotics team that competed nationally, and helped advocate for an all-girls robotics team from Afghanistan to compete in the U.S.

The new startup fits well with her interest in making science accessible and relatable to girls, although she admits that the business side has posed some challenges.

I know a lot more about the science than the business side,” Bowen said. “But it’s been interesting to learn.” She found a bulk retailer in Canada for the materials, tested the experiments herself, and now assembles every kit by hand in her home before shipping them off.

Ultimately, Bowen said, she wants to pursue global affairs and public health at Yale. But, for now, she’s using the unexpected break to capitalize in other ways on her interests and strengths.

Fem ’n STEM bridges my interests in medicine, education, and equity in the science fields,” she said. “In the midst of a global pandemic, the world needs scientists more than ever — what better time to encourage kids to pursue their passions? My overall goal is to show students science is fun, engaging and understandable. In catering specifically to underrepresented populations, I hope to discourage stereotypes and help to inspire a new generation of scientists.”

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