The gift of science, not explosions

Jennifer A. Kingson / New York Times News Service /

Published Dec 25, 2012 at 04:00AM

Ask scientists of a certain age about childhood memories, and odds are they’ll tell of the stink bombs and gunpowder they concocted with their chemistry sets. Dangerous? Yes, but fun.

“Admittedly, I have blown some things up in my time,” said William Whittaker, 64, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University who unearthed his first chemistry set, an A.C. Gilbert, in a junkyard around age 8. By 16, he was dabbling in advanced explosives. “There’s no question that I burned some skin off my face,” he recalled.

Under today’s Christmas tree, girls and boys will unwrap science toys of a very different ilk: slime-making kits and perfume labs, vials of a fluff-making polymer called Insta-Snow, “no-chem” chemistry sets (chemical free!), plus an array of telescopes, microscopes and DIY volcanoes.

Nothing in these gifts will set the curtains on fire.

“Basically, you have to be able to eat everything in the science kit,” said Jim Becker, president of SmartLab Toys, who recalled learning the names of chemicals from his childhood chemistry set, which contained substances that have long since been banned from toys.

Some scientists lament the passing of the trial-and-error days that inspired so many careers. “Science kits are a lot less open-ended these days,” said Kimberly Gerson, a science blogger who lives outside Toronto. “Everything is packaged. It’s either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If you don’t get the right result, you’ve done it wrong and you’re out of chemicals.”

Others, though, say the new crop of science toys — even with their cartoonish packaging and heavy emphasis on neon goo — actually represent progress. More entertaining, educational and accessible than earlier products, which relied heavily on a child’s inner motivation, these toys may actually help democratize the learning of science and introduce children to scientific methods and concepts at an earlier age.

“I grew up in the 1960s, and a lot of the chemistry sets were kind of boring,” said William Gurstelle, a science and technology writer. “You’d go through the book, and at the end of the experiment you’d get some light precipitate at the bottom of the beaker. Maybe at most it changes color or something.”

Gurstelle’s books, which include “Whoosh Boom Splat” and “Backyard Ballistics,” teach people how to make dangerous projectiles, like a potato cannon that uses hair spray as launching fluid. But he had high praise for commercial science kits, which show children (among other things) how to make slime.

“Well, that’s a pretty cool thing to have when you’re done,” Gurstelle said. “You’re not going to really learn to be a chemist from a chemistry set when you’re in seventh grade; you’re just going to be inspired. The point is that new chemistry sets and new toys are just better, because the manufacturers have figured out how to make them more fun.”

Some toy makers, like SmartLab, Becker’s company, have used this philosophy to give some classic toys a modern makeover. One of SmartLab’s takes on a chemistry set, for instance, is the Extreme Secret Formula Lab, which comes with “squishy-lidded bubble test tubes” and “an abundance of glow-in-the-dark powder.” The game of Mousetrap has been re-envisioned as the Weird and Wacky Contraption Lab, which lets children release their inner Rube Goldberg. And the slot car tracks that Becker recalls snapping together in his youth have been translated into a robot called ReCon 6.0, which children can program to roam around.

“What we do is give kids the opportunity to learn through problem solving,” Becker said.

Of course, computer technology has also remade the experience of learning science. Children may be more likely to click on a science app than go and play outside.

Critics of the new toys say that’s all the more reason to promote playthings that are more suggestive than prescriptive, items that evoke creative thinking. Will the Beautiful Blob Slime Lab release your child’s inner chemist?

“I think back to when you had a bucket of Legos dumped in front of you, and you could do what you wanted with them,” said Gerson, the science blogger.

Certainly, science toys have evolved. In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, Erector Sets and chemistry sets with real glassware, chemicals and spirit lamps were “meant to breed a scientific culture in America,” said Art Molella, a science historian who directs the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The atomic era of the 1950s and the launching of Sputnik ushered in science kits that pointed out the possibilities in energy and space, including some with samples of real radioactive ore. For better or worse, Molella said, “there was a lot of hands-on aspects to it, not like our video games today.”

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