I was wandering the aisles of the Bay Area’s largest rummage sale not long ago when I came across a thing of beauty: an ancient but extremely well-kept kids’ science experiment kit.
It must have been around 40 years old. The large wooden box’s double doors opened to reveal a full-size metal microscope, glass slides and a slew of toxic chemicals that would never make it into the hands of our precious modern-day youngsters. As cool as it was, it made me sad — science kits just aren’t as awesome anymore.
That’s not to say they aren’t prevalent. A cursory Google search will prove there are more “experiment” kits out there than you can count. For the most part they’re targeted to the very young; most manufacturers expect children as young as six years old to play with them. Many of them are also specific to different genders. And while I’m sure little girls would love to concoct their own lipstick, and little boys want to look at their boogers close up, there aren’t many science lessons in there. At least, not the kind of lesson our parents were learning when they accidentally burned holes in their carpets. (Don’t even get me started on the Magic Science kit, which lets you “cast spells” to change the colors of liquids, or the one that shows Einstein pulling a rabbit out of a hat on the box. Shudder.)
But all hope is not lost. One company in particular still carries a torch for the good old days of corrosive compounds, piercing audio tones and home explosions. Thames & Kosmos makes 60 different science kits targeted at kids ages 5 to 12, covering topics like ignition, electricity, biology, physics and, of course, chemistry. The experiments for older kids are so good, I’d even recommend them for adults.
Every kit comes with an extensive manual that thoroughly outlines how to complete a series of experiments. You follow it chronologically, learning a new concept with each new experiment as you go, and, with several of the kits, eventually end with one big experiment to finish things off.
The Crystals, Rocks and Minerals kit ($50), for example, has you grow several different small crystals using various minerals (like potassium aluminum sulfate, copper sulfate, and potassium hexacyanoferrate). Once you’ve grown some “seed crystals,” you use them to grow a large, balloon-sized geode, which you get to crack open with a hammer. All the while, you learn about geology and the formation of the Earth.
Much more complex is T&K’s Electronics Workshop #1 ($100), which comes with a console to which you add transistors, resistors, capacitors, circuits and wires in different combinations. You start off simply, learning how to light a few LEDs. Eventually, you finish off the kit with a fully functioning medium-wave radio.
The crowning achievement, however, is the CHEM C3000 chemistry experiment kit ($250). With 333 experiments, this kit is a massive undertaking — the accompanying manual can be more accurately called a book. There are 29 sets of experiments, each focusing on a different chemical like ammonia, hydrogen peroxide and carbonic acid, or general topics like combustion, acids and chemical bonds. The kit comes with a slew of real lab tools: test tubes, a graduated cylinder and an Erlenmeyer flask, not to mention some nasty chemicals and a phone number for poison control.
Granted, not all of T&K’s kits are as fun as these three. The company’s Genetics kit ($35) is really just a series of worksheets, ultimately more textbook than experiment.
Also, because the company has to make its experiments understandable to youngsters, some of the writing can be trying for adults (the electronics workshop is hosted by Professor Armstrong who interjects experiment instructions with cute comments like: “No problem. I’m always welcome to visit Captain Fancyfree.”)
That said, the Thames & Kosmos kits are great fun — with or without kids. They are well made, extremely thorough, and clearly created by people who care about entertainment as much as education. Sure, they’re not as stunning as that 40-year-old chemistry set, but they are without question a beacon of light in what it is otherwise a bleak, sad sector of toys.