The Who, What, When, Where and Why of Chemistry
Chemistry is not a world unto itself. It is woven firmly into the fabric of the rest of the world, and various fields, from literature to archeology, thread their way through the chemist's text.
The Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia's latest exhibit is called "Science at Play" — and even if you can't get to Philadelphia, you can browse some of the materials on Tumblr, including animated videos of experiences — good and bad — with chemistry kits.
When my kids were young, I encouraged them to play with science stuff. I wanted them to be willing to get messy, to make mistakes, to think about stuff where it wasn't perfectly clear what was going on and to begin to understand that protective gear wasn't a ritual or a costume, but part of thinking through how to reduce risk. That you could make your own equipment.
Though kits have gotten far more tame over the years — no more uranium ore or instructions for making ammonia in your hand — there are still commercial kits that let kids play not only responsibly, but productively, with chemistry. The new MEL kits that Todd Bookman's piece on chemistry kits for The Pulse (listen here - full disclosure, I was interviewed for this segment) highlights are particularly cool in that they plug into another important skill for budding scientists: how to share your work. The kit comes with a lense that you can snap over a cell phone camera, giving you an up close look at what you are doing, and enabling you to share it via social media.
But as important as kits are, I think the ad hoc experiences of doing science are equally critical. They hone the ability to read instructions (and reveal how much is not revealed in the methods sections of any science communique), encourage a sense of scale and quantitation (how much is 1 gram of something, as opposed to pour in this packet) and help novice scientists get comfortable with tinkering to build apparatus when they don't have exactly what they need. And when tackling a new research problem, do you ever have precisely what you need?
While you can make do with measuring cups and kitchen scales, I'm with the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Erin McLeary, who notes the appeal of having the real stuff in your hands. These days you can easily and inexpensively acquire a few real beakers, graduated cylinders and other lab equipment -- along with gloves and other protective gear.
So if you're looking for an interesting and unique gift for a kid interested in science, try assembling a small kit and including the instructions and materials for a couple of experiments. For starters, extracting DNA from dried peas or copper electroplating (yes, it uses something you shouldn't eat - don't and wash your hands) or even the infamous water electrolysis (sans smoldering splint and thereby less risk of singed eyebrows). Offer to help supervise or be the videographer.
To read more of what I've written about chemistry kits and doing chemistry outside the laboratory see: