Due to safety concerns modern chemistry sets are completely lame. A year ago the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation ran a project with Society for Science and the Public to reimagine a chemistry set for the 21st century. Winners were announced and some were extremely clever .. I don't know what has happened since.
Manu Prakash, PhD (Stanford, CA), an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, and his graduate student George Korir – who created what could literally be a 21st century chemistry set - won the first place award of $50,000. Prakash and Korir developed a prototype of an inexpensive “lab on a chip” using a technology known as “microfluidics.” Microfluidics uses programmable microchips containing miniature pipes, valves, and pumps to carry out a wide variety of chemistry or biology experiments. Until now, the high cost of this leading edge technology has confined its use to major laboratories. Prakash has found a way to produce very inexpensive (about $1) yet fully functional versions of this technology that children can use to design and carry out their own experiments – much as they would with traditional chemistry sets, but now using a safer self-contained kit with nanoliters of chemicals, enzymes and other reagents.
Second prize ($25,000) in the prototype category was won by Robijanto Soetedjo, MD, PhD (Kenmore, WA), a neurophysiologist with the University of Washington. Dr. Soetedjo developed a toy set that children can experiment with to see the effects of the electrical signals produced by their muscles, their hearts, and even their brains. Electrodes are attached to a part of the body, such as the forearm, and to another device that shows them the effects of their electrical signals. For example, by tightening a hand grip, the child can turn on a light, spin a propeller, control a motor or (through an audio amplifier) emit a sound. The toy set can also interface with a range of computer devices and helps opens up the space of neuroscience and biofeedback as areas for children to explore in play.
Tying for third place ($10,000) were a team led by biologist and geologist Barnas G. Monteith (Tumblehome Learning, Inc.), of Brockton, MA, and including Pendred Noyce, MD (Weston, MA) and Peter Wong (Brighton, MA); and a group led by physicist Deren Guler (Brooklyn, NY), along with Michael Rule (Providence, RI) and Laura Miller (Brooklyn, NY).
The Tumblehome group, which also won second place in the ideation category for a related idea, developed what they call the “SenSay Sensor System.” The system is a modular all-in-one sensor and exploration kit with online supports. The kit lets explorers experiment with physics, environmental energy, biology, chemistry and engineering design without having to solder parts together or use a pre-existing bulky microcontroller. The sensor allows users to gather data, provides output on a computer, and provides immediate feedback via sound, light, and graphs. The kit provides a novel way to get children interested in – and interacting with – data and its analysis.
The Big Shot camera kit is an example of something in the category. Make Magazine encourages kids of all ages to play with technology and a few small suppliers have sprouted up, but there is probably a lot of room for innovation in exploratory learning.