Kid's science kits -- old vs new

Thursday, July 21, 2011
Coming soon -- a math book without all those pesky numbers
I've already written a post that i was deprived in my childhood because I didn't have a Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. Consider some of what it included: a U-239 Geiger radiation counter, an electroscope to measure radioactivity of different substances, a spinthariscope to watch "live" radioactive disintegration, a Wilson Cloud Chamber to see paths of electrons & alpha particles at 10k mps, three very low-level radioactive sources (Alpha, Beta, Gamma) and four samples of Uranium-bearing ores.

However, I did have a chemistry set and it did include chemicals. As you can see in the above picture, incredibly enough not only do modern chemistry sets already not include such dangers as glass test tubes and Bunsen burners, now they've also done away with chemicals.

Aside from those two examples, how do modern science kits stack up against the older versions? Collector's weekly has an article, Cyanide, Uranium and Ammonium Nitrate: When Kids Really Had Fun-With Science, that compares old and new science kits. Below is an excerpt of their discussion about chemistry sets:
Most lovers of science are all too aware that chemistry sets have gone down the tubes, particularly in the last decade. Sites like the 12 Angry Men blog have bemoaned how modern chemistry sets expose kids to little more than low-energy experiments that produce changes in color. This spring, the JAYFK expressed outrage at what appeared to be the last straw: The Chemistry 60 set, whose packaging boasts “60 Fun Activities With No Chemicals.”


Early chemistry sets had all sorts of dangerous substances, which for kids meant they were fun. Potassium nitrate, for example, is used in gunpowder, fireworks, and rocket fuel, while nitric acid (also used in rocket fuel) and sulfuric acid are highly corrosive. Sodium ferrocyanide, which reacts with iron ions to create a Prussian blue dye, is now classified as a poison (thanks to the “cyanide” part). Calcium hypochlorite could be mixed to create free chlorine gas, which wreaks havoc on the human respiratory system. Ten-year-olds could make things go boom, build their own batteries and engines, or bend glass with alcohol lamps. Having parents who would teach them lab safety was supposed to be an important part of the learning process.

However, in the ’60s, parents began to express their concern about the risks, as new laws required labeling for materials that are flammable, explosive, toxic, or caustic. Gilbert and Chemcraft began offering kits that offered only “non-explosive” and “non-toxic” chemicals. These early regulations, while perfectly sensible, were the first steps toward the slippery slope that led to today’s “chemical-free” chemistry sets.

Understandably, most parents don’t want their children handling known carcinogens or, say, battery acid. That said, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme where kits no longer contain Bunsen burners, or even glass test tubes, beakers, or flasks. Why is that? We can thank three post-modern horrors: Meth labs, homegrown terrorism, and liability lawsuits. Litigation has made manufacturers reluctant to market anything remotely risky to children, even glass. Many metals in their elemental form—such as lithium, red phosphorus, sodium, and potassium—are highly regulated by the FBI, as they can be used to produce meth. And anything that could be used in a bomb, like ammonium nitrate (fertilizer), faces intense scrutiny by the Feds.

Hence, we get namby-pamby sets that have real chemists fretting that kids might just think science is a yawn. As an alternative, Make magazine and Wired Geek Dad encourage parents to use the Internet or pick up “Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments” by Robert Bruce Thompson to put together their own DIY chemistry sets for their budding mad geniuses.
If you're at all interested in science for kids, or science kits on the market today, you should -- if for no other reason than to follow the links to work-arounds for sub par modern kits -- go and read the entire article.