Do Modern ‘No Chemical’ Chemistry Kits for Kids Take the Fun Out of Science?

Some parents hoping to encourage their children’s interest in science might have given a chemistry kit this holiday season, but these science toys look very different from the ones the parents themselves might have received decades earlier.

Jennifer Kingson for the New York Times wrote that while the chemistry sets of yesteryear might have been alarming and slightly dangerous, today’s kits are so safe some even say “no chem,” meaning “no chemicals” are included. Sounds a slightly counterintuitive for a chemistry set, no?

Gilbert chemistry set from the 1940s is composed almost entirely of chemicals for experiments. (Image: Wikimedia)
Modern science kits have less chemical compounds included. (Photo: Toys R Us)

“Basically, you have to be able to eat everything in the science kit,” Jim Becker, president of SmartLab Toys, said to the Times.

Here’s more about the evolution of the kits:

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, Mr. Molella said, “there was a lot of hands-on aspects to it, not like our video games today.”

Some like science blogger Kimberly Gerson said modern kits “are a lot less open-ended these days,” while science writer William Gurstelle said the outcome of kits has improved beyond “some light precipitate at the bottom of the beaker.”

These more interesting chemistry products like slime production, Kingson reported Reneé Whitney, a vice president at Be Amazing! Toys, saying is what makes science interesting but that’s not all.

“Once they’ve had the ‘wow effect,’ we try to explain why it happened,” Whitney told the Times. The point of the kits is to “to teach them to think like scientists,” she said.

Another benefit of the less dangerous kits, Kingson wrote is many experiments can be conducted without parental help or overly watchful supervision.

The Chemical Heritage Foundation has been collecting kits from a variety of decades for posterity. It has one of the largest chemistry set collections as a public institution. Watch their video about the sets with a look at some of the oldest ones:

Read more of Kingson’s comparison between old and new chemistry kits for children on the New York Times here.

(H/T: Boing Boing)