Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Decline of the Chemistry Set

Quick quiz: What do Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, internet guru Vint Cerf, and Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard have in common? Besides their later tech accomplishments, all spent their childhoods blowing things up with chemistry sets.

And unfortunately, they may be the last generation able to do so. "There's no question that stinks and bangs and crystals and colors are what drew kids -- particularly boys-- to science," Nobel Prize winner Roald Hoffmann told Wired magazine recently. "Now the potential for stinks and bangs has been legislated out."

Yep, chemistry sets are fun stuff for bright kids who want to do more real science than the ball-dropping "experiments" in school allow. But good luck finding a decent one these days.

According to Steve Silberman's recent story in Wired on the topic, the crackdown began after Timothy McVeigh used commonly available chemicals to construct the bomb that tore through Oklahoma City in 1995. General terror worries after September 11 prompted more concern. Then add the crystal meth epidemic to the mix. Thirty states have passed laws in recent years restricting sales of chemicals and equipment that can be used to make that drug. According to Wired, in Texas, you have to register Erlenmeyer flasks with the state's Department of Public Safety. The rise of the internet means enterprising kids can now concoct explosions straightaway, without having to tinker with the set for a while, first. And did I mention how litigious people have become? Imagine the lawsuits a real chemistry set could inspire.

But all this means that the old Porter Chemical Company Chemcraft labs-in-a-box can no longer be sold. That set had enough equipment to perform 800 experiments. The new Mr. Wizard Science Set, by contrast, comes with only five chemicals, including laundry starch. Ho hum.

The only "real" set still available, according to Wired, is the Thames & Kosmos C3000, which retails for $200. But even this top-of-the-line set comes with a list of chemicals you must purchase elsewhere in order to actually do certain experiments. Ted McGuire, the company's head, told Wired that "A lot of retailers are scared to carry a real chemistry set now because of liability concerns... The stuff under your kitchen sink is far more dangerous than the things in our kits, but put the word chemistry on something and people become terrified."

That's too bad because, in case anyone hasn't noticed, America is cranking out fewer scientists than we once did. The kind of science practiced in a lot of classrooms looks nothing like the real thing, where you have to come up with questions and find answers that aren't in the back of the book. Chemistry sets help you do that. Too many inquisitive kids these days, unfortunately, are going to have to settle for a sanitized version of the subject.


Quiltsrwarm said...

My first thought was for my 9yo son, the budding chemist. We homeschool, and I searched for awhile for one of those small chemistry sets for him to tinker with (thinking of Professor Snape all the way!) because he had never experienced chemistry (or any science for that matter) in public school (this year was our first year homeschooling).

Last Christmas, I found a set online, a Smithsonian set, but it is, of course, extremely basic and does not contain any real equipment. He has no problem learning the scientific method, writing and making notes, keeping track of results, but instead of making sparks fly, foam flow, and colors change, my son has had to endure days of rust experiments. Rust. My kid is completely bored with it. Imagine that... :)

So, I've been on the search for decent middle-school/high-school level equipment and chemicals with textbooks for my child to use next year and the search is tough. Glad to hear it may become tougher...

Laura Vanderkam said...

Hi Lisa- that's hilarious- wow. Rust. Watching rust form is kinda like watching paint dry, eh? If anyone else has experiences with boring chemistry sets, let me know, as I'm trying to write a short piece about them for another publication. Thanks, Laura

Anonymous said...

A recommendation I've heard for the best chemistry sets are the Thames and Kosmos sets. I have not had direct experience with them.

Quiltsrwarm said...

I am impressed with the website above -- wow! Even physics kits! I think what impresses me most about the chemistry sets I looked at are the lab manuals -- pictures and nice layout. The manual was a huge drawback of the Smithsonion kit we purchased 6 months ago and that now collects dust.

I haven't yet purchased a new set, but I'm seriously considering the $200 one just so we have everything for all three kids to eventually use.

The chemistry sets are promoted as a way to perform "magic" for your friends and family, so perhaps there are a few minor explosions... :)

Laura Vanderkam said...

The Thames & Kosmos sets are very cool (I just got to interview the president of the company two days ago -- he says a lot of people who recall the Porter Chemical Company sets from yesteryear actually order these kits for the nostalgia). But due to the lack of strong oxidizers among the chemicals, you can't get them to bang... sorry Lisa! But they still look like they'd be more fun and have real equipment.

Quiltsrwarm said...

Darn! No potasium explosions?? ;-)

I remember this experiment from 7th grade science class -- teacher took us all outside where he had a 5-gallon bucket about 2/3 full of water. He made us all stand away from the bucket while he tossed a chunk of potasium into it and ran away. The explosion was LOUD!! And, we were all awed by it... My guess is they don't do THAT anymore in school!

Stephanie Gerson said...

hello Bean Head Toys! I'm writing to pitch you a story about Thames & Kosmos: producer of fantastic science kits, which you've delightfully already covered on your blog:

we'll be introducing 8 new kits at this year's Toy Fair, including new editions of our award-winning Fuel Cell Car and Power House, and entirely new Hydropower and Global Warming kits. we'd Love to get covered on your blog again in anticipation of Toy Fair, and if you're willing, please get in touch at either way, thank you for your fantastic coverage of educational toys!