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  December 6,  2004
Volume 82, Number 49
pp. 38-39

With the holiday shopping season upon us, C&EN sees how some popular chemistry sets measure up


At a time when most kids are pestering their parents for video games and other high-tech toys, it's easy to be nostalgic for the glory days of the chemistry set. So C&EN assembled a group of grown-ups and children to see which chemistry kits will move kids to put away the remote control and which ones will earn you a reputation as a bad gift giver.

SAFETY FIRST Max gears up to do some chemistry.
Parents should remember that with any chemistry set, adult supervision is necessary to keep things safe and fun. Their task is easier than it used to be, however. Manufacturers have removed the more reactive chemicals and any experiments requiring a flame from today's chemistry sets, making them safer but also less exciting.

As a result, parents may find that they could easily obtain many of the kits' reagents around the house or at the local hardware store. In fact, a chemistry set is by no means required to do fun, kid-friendly chemistry experiments. Parents could instead cull a rainy day's worth of activities from ACS's WonderNet website (http://chemistry.org/wondernet), among others. But if you've set your heart on getting a kit, read on for some hints on what to look for.

What follows, in alphabetical order, is just a sampling of the chemistry sets available. To narrow the field, we looked at chemistry sets designed for children who are at least eight years old. We stuck to sets that cost about $30 each and are easy to buy online. Also, we chose kits that specifically identify themselves with chemistry, rather than forensic science or science in general.

The Chemlab 500 kit, by Skilcraft, is not particularly flashy, but it has more than 500 experiments and procedures to keep young chemists busy. Its activities include experiments with crystals, polymers, acid-base reactions, and "magic" in chemistry.

The kit comes with seven bottles of reagents, a chemical rack for storage, a 40-well microplate, and several pieces of simple laboratory equipment. Parents need to supply safety equipment like goggles and gloves, and they also have to gather some household items such as mothballs, salt, or dishwashing detergent for most of the experiments. A number of experiments call for household materials only, so the set might seem superfluous at times.

Chemlab 500 is intended for children age nine and older, but the adult who tested it for C&EN reckons it could be a little too advanced for the average nine-year-old. "Kids who have a strong interest in chemistry will get a lot out of this set," she says, "but children who haven't shown any interest in science might have a hard time getting into some of the experiments."

The tester is impressed with this set's instruction manual. "It communicates chemistry on a good level for older children," she says. Each section starts with a glossary of terms and discusses most of the experiments with a "Here's the science" section at the end. "The manual explains what's happening clearly and concisely, without being cloying," she notes.

MOST KIDS get their first taste of chemistry in the kitchen, and Kitchen Table Chemistry, by Wild Goose, uses household staples like vinegar, baking soda, and liquid soap to delve into science and reactivity. The kit's 21 activities include classics like generation of carbon dioxide from baking soda and vinegar, as well as more subtle experiments such as paper chromatography of food coloring.

SCIENCE MAGIC Justin experiments with "Merlin's Muffin."
The adult whom C&EN enlisted to assess this particular set thinks most activities are simple enough for a child eight years or older (the indicated age range) to undertake without much difficulty. "If the kids are doing the experiments and the parents are helping them read the instruction book for each experiment, there is some chemistry to be learned," she says. "Experiments are followed with a 'Why'd It Do That?' section that's written in a jazzy style."

The language might induce cringes from parents who have a scientific background, though. For example, the explanation for the surface tension of water likens molecular interactions to "a big ol' group hug."

Each activity is fairly simple and involves only a few steps. This is perfect, the tester says, for kids who thrive on instant gratification. Aside from a test tube, a rubber stopper, and some tongs, everything in the kit could easily be replenished with common kitchen supplies. Consequently, she thinks it would be just as easy to invest in a book of simple experiments rather than buy this kit. On the other hand, for busy parents, there's something to be said for having everything you need in one box.

Oooh Aaah Chemistry, also by Wild Goose, casts its spell with nine visually appealing and kid-friendly activities. Most of these are your typical acid-base reactions with colorful indicators or fun applications, like disappearing ink and "bleeding" paper.

Seven-and-a-half-year-old Justin tested the set for C&EN, along with his aunt and uncle. Justin's uncle says the experiments seem more like magic tricks than chemistry experiments, although the activity book addresses the science behind the magic and provides questions to ponder and even some reaction schemes.

"You have a nice choice with how far you can go with the educational aspect, depending on the age and curiosity of the child," Justin's aunt says. "Justin was more interested in the coolness of the experiments rather than the 'why' behind them, so we let him just be awed by chemistry." Older children might get more out of the scientific explanations.

"Safety is always emphasized," Justin's aunt says. "The first steps always include putting on goggles and gloves." The activity booklet stresses lab cleanliness, and the kit includes most of the supplies needed, except for easy-to-find items like pennies and an old white sock.

Even though he's six months shy of the recommended minimum age, Justin managed to get through the kit easily with adult supervision. In fact, he was so fond of it that he refused to surrender the kit after testing it.

A day of slime might put some parents off, but for a lot of kids, Slimey Chemistry, another kit from Wild Goose, sounds appealing. This set, which focuses on colloidal and polymeric chemistry, comes with chemicals and instructions for eight activities, including making pseudo putty out of borax and glue and creating cross-linked polyvinyl alcohol slime.

Although the kit specifies that it's for children ages eight and up, C&EN's seven-year-old tester, Max, managed to tackle all but one of the kit's activities in less than two hours. Max's supervising parent says he found the kit complete and didn't need to gather any additional supplies aside from fingernail polish remover and standard household items like bowls, paper towels, and food coloring.

THE SLIMEY Chemistry experiments all worked fairly well, and both Max and his father found them interesting and enjoyable. They involved plenty of tangible, hands-on activities such as pipetting, mixing liquids, and handling polymers. None was particularly dramatic, but Max didn't seem to mind. His father was happy that the experiments were safe and easy to clean up. The set's activity booklet includes some scientific lessons and questions with each experiment. These explanations don't quite reach the age group they are aimed at, according to Max's dad. Some are too complex, but most are too cutesy without truly addressing the chemistry. "Even at seven, kids can handle a real explanation and a diagram showing stylized atoms bonding," Max's dad says.

Although C&EN had no intention of focusing on a single manufacturer, three of the chemistry sets tested were manufactured by Wild Goose Co. This coincidence came about because these three sets fit within the age range and price point we set out to study.

The three Wild Goose sets are distinct, but they elicited a universal complaint: The company makes a big deal out of laboratory safety and protective equipment--particularly goggles--but the kits don't come with goggles. Instead, the company sells them separately, and when you buy the sets online, it's not clear that this important piece of equipment isn't included.

Our testers agree that they would prefer to pay a little more for a set that includes goggles rather than run the risk of having excited children open the toy only to learn that they don't have the proper protection to play with it.

The Smithsonian Chem-Works Microchemistry set, by Natural Science Industries, is the most sophisticated chemistry kit that C&EN tested. Its slick storage and carrying case holds 10 vials of reagents, a 60-well microplate, pipettes, measuring cups, and a small molecular model set.

The set takes a microscale approach to chemistry, a feature the manufacturers say makes the science safer and also allows the young chemist to perform quantitative experiments as well as qualitative ones. According to the description, more than 500 experiments and procedures are outlined in the detailed instruction manual. Experiments on surface tension, which are among the first described in the manual, could be a bit underwhelming, but the activities in synthesis, acid-base chemistry, and electrochemistry are worth skipping ahead to.

Although this kit is recommended for children ages 10 and up, C&EN's adult tester thinks it will probably be most popular with older kids who have already had some experience with simpler kits and want to learn more. "Younger kids or children who don't have an interest in science might find the set too daunting and banish it to the closet of forgotten toys," she says.

The instruction manual is set up with a "terms to know section" at the beginning of each chapter and questions after some of the experiments. "It could be more engaging," the tester notes, "but it certainly doesn't dumb down the science."

Kudos to this Smithsonian product for being the only chemistry set C&EN tested that includes goggles. It should be noted, however, that the goggles were a good fit for one of our seven-year-old testers, so they might be too snug for older children.

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2004

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