Remaking the Chemistry set for a new Generation

Craft & Design Education Science
Remaking the Chemistry set for a new Generation

For many kids, a chemistry set is their first direct exposure to science and experimentation. It can also be a parent or educator’s first science-based interaction with a child. So in spite of the 1950s aura that surrounds chemistry sets in American culture, they can be an important part of a young person’s understanding and, more important, interest in science.

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That’s why the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s competition to remake the chemistry set for the 21st Century is such a cool idea.

The SPARK (Science Plan and Research Kit contest), a collaboration with Society for Science & the Public (SSP), is searching for entrants from far and wide, from elementary school teachers to scientists, engineers, and, of course, makers. The contest focuses on science beyond chemistry and seeks ideas for “new tools that tap into the spirit of the classic chemistry set and encourage children to wonder how and why the world works.” Submissions will be accepted until Jan. 7. The grand prize winner gets $50,000.

Steve Davee, director of education and communications for the Maker Education Initiative, grew up with chemistry sets, but thinks they have become too watered down and need a good update.

“They are getting dumber, more focused on demonstration rather than experimentation, and contain diminishing amounts of chemicals,” he said. “In some cases, there are no chemicals at all,” he said, pointing to this blog post by Sean Ragan.

The power of a good chemistry set to awaken a child’s imagination is significant, he says.

In my varied experience in preschool through high school education, kids go absolutely nuts over anything having to do with chemistry. It has that enticing level of ‘magic’ that is obtainable, understandable, but still so full of mystery.

Chemistry helps shift a child’s mind toward imagining what they cannot see, a growth shift in understanding that there is an entire ‘secret’ world of things that happen that require investigation and clever methods to observe. It represents a whole new realm of curiosity, a new playground for ideas and exploration.


Photography courtesy of Chemical Heritage Foundation (top left, bottom right); by Dustin Fenstermacher (top right, bottom left).

“Decades ago, the chemistry set helped inspire kids’ passion for discovery,” said Rick Bates, interim CEO and chief advancement officer at SSP. “But as times change, we see that young people have fewer chances to delight in tinkering and exploring. We intend that SPARK will encourage entrants to consider how to recapture children’s interest in science and foster lasting curiosity and creativity.”

SPARK is looking for participants to submit both working prototypes and ideas that entrants have not yet been developed.

“We’re interested in ideas that could inspire children ages 8-88,” said Janet Coffey, science program officer for the Moore foundation. “In addition to gathering new ideas and prototypes, we have a more ambitious aim of sparking a conversation about the importance of these kinds of experiences as critical early seeds for growing children’s inherent curiosity, imagination and wonder and cultivating lifelong engagement with science and engineering, regardless of career choice.”

Here are a couple of sources to get you thinking about chemistry sets. MAKE projects editor Keith Hammond wrote this great ode to old school chemistry sets and tips for making your own. Robert Bruce Thompson literally wrote the book on making chemistry sets. And The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments by Robert Brent and Harry Lazarus is a classic that still sparks creativity.

What ideas do you have for reimagining the chemistry set?

6 thoughts on “Remaking the Chemistry set for a new Generation

  1. Ian +2 says:

    Since the 1950’s and perhaps earlier, one element in particular has been deminishing in not only chemrstry sets but almost all toys. This critical catalyst to fun is missing from all but the worst toys. I’m talking about the element of Danger! Kids are drawn to it in their play. They climb trees, swing from ropes. Always experimenting with what they can do and find out about their world. In the Chemestry/science kit for the new millenia I’d suggest putting some of this back in. Include materials to not only conduct exciting experiments but to build your own lab equipment. How about some real glasswear or an alcohol burner? Or at least tutorials on how to #Make your own. There’s a terrific book that should be republished as the manual. The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. A must own for any Geek Maker Mad Scientist wannabe.

  2. Charlie says:

    I’m really excited about doing this project but I am struggling to understand what was so dangerous about the chemistry sets of 1950’s era… Fire? Noxious gases? Toxic starting materials? Lack of proper safety equipment? What ever happened to giving children a sense of agency?

  3. Bruce W. Fowler, Ph.D. says:

    I can attribute my chemistry interest (and degrees) to two childhood phenomena: George Toffel’s chemistry program on Alabama public television and my chemistry set. The latter was exceedingly frustrating: I could not do anything with it substantive. As a result it was not educational. But the frustration was motivational in that it convinced me I had to learn how to do the things I saw on television and that meant studying chemistry in college. IMHO, demonstration sets may embody that frustration if done properly but I greatly discount any idea that chemistry sets are actually educational.

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Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.

View more articles by Stett Holbrook
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