I recently interviewed the founders of Yellow Scope, a company whose mission is “to hook girls on science early.”
Marcie Colledge BSc, PhD, and Kelly McCollum, BS, MPH are both scientists and moms of daughters – not to mention delightful and hilarious company. We met at the gorgeous Grand Central Bakery on Freemont here in Portland, Oregon because I had to know more about their ‘science kits for girls.’
Their mom energy was immediate. They were so warm and both pelted me with questions, which I allowed while we were in line for a coffee, but actually had to cut off at the table so I could start recording an actual interview.
If you check out the Yellow Scope website the home page reports that, according to studies, girls enjoy science and math in 4th grade, but those numbers plunge by 8th grade. Marcie and Kelly think part of the reason for this is a cultural mindset that science is for boys, which you can see reflected in product marketing and toy aisles.
In late 2014, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a business that told girls science was for them too. That not only could they “do it,” but it would be fun and creative too.
What Makes a Science Kit For Girls?
What makes a science kit specifically female? Well, it’s not the kit itself; it’s where you might find it.
Marcie: “What we were responding to was the science kits out there targeted to girls. [They’re] so not rigorous; there’s no science underlying them.”
Indeed, if you do a Google image search for ‘science kits for girls’ you will be lucky to get through the pink montage of products like
- Magic Nail Laboratory
- Perfume Science
- Spa Lab
- Pampering Boutique
- Glitzy Fruit Sprays and
- Lip-Balm Lab
to get to the non-nauseating brands like Yellow Scope, Roominate, or Goldieblox – companies that promote science- not for beauty’s sake.
Marcie: “There’s some great rigorous kits out there on chemistry and physics that are definitely targeted to boys. The packaging is dark black and blue, and they’re placed in the boys section at the toy store so a girl has to go ‘I’m gonna walk over here’–”
Kelly: “‘I’m gonna do a boy thing.’”
Marcie described their kits being different in another way beyond packaging. She says that some of the better sets are crammed full of experiments and topics but only just touch on each one.
Marcie: “I think kids learn best, girls especially, when there’s some relevance to it. We wanted to go deeper.
“Three concepts. Three labs.
Within each of those labs lots of experiments.
“You start to own it and you come away after experimenting with our Foundation Chemistry Kit understanding…on a fundamental level. We say it’s rigorous and creative.”
How do you define that word ‘rigorous’ in this context?
Kelly: “Really it’s high level science. My personal opinion is that science classes are so layered with so much information, so many facts, it can be perceived as overwhelming. I think the rigor is actually understanding the concepts; being able to think critically and apply them. We teach those complex concepts in a way that is purely experiment based.
“By doing the experiments and engaging with them, they’re just starting to get the patterns and starting to intuit those concepts. ‘Oh the molecules are moving faster in the hot water.’ They graph it. ‘Okay I’m getting the pattern.’ That’s a fundamental principle in chemistry. Now you’re gonna get to middle school or high school and you’ve nailed that one.”
First Step Fears
Your blog said that pushing the ‘Launch’ button on Kickstarter made you feel vulnerable. Can you talk more about that and why you felt that way?
Marcie: “Kickstarter is all or nothing”
Kelly: “We had thought about this and worked on it for so long, people would be like ‘Oh yeah, that’s a great idea’ but are [they] really going to put their money behind it?”
They didn’t have to suffer long. With an initial goal of $25,000, they reached 30% in first 12 hours, 70% in a week, and ended up stretching their goal to $32,000, which they exceeded by about a thousand on last day.
The other particularly vulnerable time was when the kit was finally out there on the shelves. They nervously waited for feedback.
Marcie: “Is it as good as we think it is? Is it clear? We ran through those experiments so many times….”
You can tell they put their soul into it, and perhaps too much of their organizational skills. They originally had instructions that were a tad over-detailed.
Marcie (imitating): “ ‘With your left hand, place it one third of the way…’ [laughter] It was everything we could do to not do that. Luckily, we have the most awesome graphic designer. She’d be like, ‘Ladies, it needs to be very friendly. Little friendlier here ladies.’
“We had to restrain ourselves, ‘Okay, they can decide which color food coloring to use”
Kelly: “Actually I think we did say to use the yellow for the first one–”
I about died laughing – how appropriate for a company called Yellow Scope. They actually started as “Science Girls” but ran into trouble with the PBS show “Sci Girls.”
Kelly: “We sent a letter to general council at PBS saying, ‘We’re sure it’s not a problem but we just thought we’d run it by you.’ And they were like ‘Um, actually….’ So now we’re ‘Yellow Scope, Science Kits for Girls’. In the end, I think we’re much happier. It allows us a lot more flexibility.”
Marcie: “Yeah, now we love it.”
So why the name ‘Yellow Scope’?
Marcie:“We liked that it had a multifaceted meaning. Microscope, telescope, coming from the Greek ‘to look at’, and also the scope of a study, the breadth or depth of a study. And then yellow because it’s not pink but it’s still fun and bright, and gender neutral.”
Kelly “It’d be great eventually, down the line, to drop the ‘Science Kits for Girls’–”
Marcie: “–just be ‘Science Kits for Kids’–”
Kelly “–because the demographic will have changed.”
Lots of Female Science Grads, But Then?
Do you remember what got you into science?
Kelly remembered always loving math.
Kelly: “I was good at it, it was definitive, I could accomplish something and check it off the list; it was so satisfying.” Then she was invited to do experiments and dissections in high school biology. “That was my favorite class aside from math. I didn’t find history that interesting I think because it was mostly textbook based—”
Isn’t math text-book based?
Kelly: “[but] problem solving, figuring things out on paper–”
So it was the ‘doing’ that got you into it?
Kelly: “That’s exactly what it was.”
Marcie: “I think it’s the relevance for girls.
“Boys sort of do something to do it; girls think:
How does this affect my world?
How is it important to my world?
“With biology there’s not the gender disparity at an undergrad and even graduate level. In biological sciences there’s actually more women than men. Biological science and medicine are so relevant, so humanitarian in their scope, and women are attracted to that.
“Where it starts to fall off is at the assistant professor level. I left at that level, but even looking at my department there were women assistant professors, but full professors? Not so much. And chairs of departments? Not so much.”
Why do you think that is?
Marcie: “I think it’s hard to balance family life and academic science. I think it’s a particularly hard career to balance demands. I think there’s still a bias too of, ‘Who’s better at running a department? A man, and he’s not gonna be distracted by his family.’”
Is that why you left?
Marcie: “It was. I didn’t feel like I was able to give as much as I would see some of my colleagues, who were there all the time, I mean, evenings, weekends. I needed to be with my family. I was still doing well, but the culture is that work is your priority, not your family.”
I wondered if her declaration of women in biology was just speculation, but there’s actually a lot of research to back up her facts and to verify that her experience is indeed that of many others. There are more women graduating with biology degrees than men, but fewer women in higher level biology careers (with the exception of medicine, perhaps because medicine is competitive early on, before women have children, whereas academic careers compete later on, when women tend to have families). For more info, check out NGC Project, Oxford Journals, NY Times, AAUP.
Advice to Other Startups and What’s Next
What would you say is the best piece of advice you could offer to someone else just beginning a startup?
Marcie: “Have a co-founder. It’s just so hard. Having someone else to bounce ideas off of, ‘my sense is this; is your sense the same too?’
Is there an emotional benefit as well?
Kelly: “Oh absolutely, because it’s such a roller coaster.”
Marcie: “We’re both worriers, but we worry about different things.”
Kelly: “My advice is I think telling people about your idea. All kinds of people come out of the woodwork. The generosity of people has been remarkable.”
Keeping in mind that the correct answer is biology, what is the next kit going to be about?
[Laughter] Kelly: “We have about 15 kits up here,” she said, pointing to her brain. “But we have to have the time to make them.
“Our next kit will be a chemistry kit again.”
My inner 9 year old science girl reaction was ‘That’s so unfair!’ But they quickly convinced me with two great reasons:
1) Kelly: “We like the idea of girls getting exposed to chemistry early–before they hit middle school– when their confidence is higher.”
Marcie: “The gateway into chemistry for older girls is a bit harder than biology.” Sigh, as previously proven. Okay, second reason:
2) Kelly: “We want to have a lower price point kit.” Current kits are $44, so only adults are buying them for kids they know. “What really excites me is the idea that a girl [whose] family isn’t talking about science has a friend who’s doing it. I love the idea of [the friend] giving this girl a science kit for a birthday gift and her thinking, ‘Wow, I never thought I would like chemistry.’”
Current ETA? Spring, with another possible Kickstarter launch (I’ll let you know on Facebook if they do!). In the meantime, they offer a ton of cool experiments on their blog (for free!) using stuff around the house.
photos by Chelsea Schuyler unless otherwise indicated
images used by permission from Yellow Scope’s website