Price: US $18 to $30
Norman & Globus: http://www.electrowiz.com
Many engineers and scientists report that their choice of vocation was sparked by some childhood experience; Einstein's interest in physics began when his father gave him a magnetic compass. Today, dozens of kits and educational toys for children help to nurture or inspire the Vint Cerfs and Carl Sagans of tomorrow.
We reviewed a number of kits from two manufacturers--Norman & Globus Inc., in El Sobrante, Calif., and SmartLab , a division of Becker & Mayer, in Bellevue, Wash.--by giving them to children and asking them (and their parents) what they thought about the products. We chose these two companies because of the emphasis they place on teaching children the science behind their kits. Although all educational kits come with instructions, these are sometimes just a few sheets of dense black-and-white type. In contrast, SmartLab's and Norman & Globus's kits come with colorful and lavishly illustrated explanatory booklets.
Individual kit reviews follow below. In general, it's clear that the age ranges given by the makers on these kits are only an extremely rough guide. Some children found the instructions too easy, while others found them harder going, even when the kits were targeted for the same age. Nearly all the children, however, enjoyed doing at least some of the projects in their kit, and most of the parents felt the kids learned something as well.
First Electronics is an introductory kit that lets children ages 7 and up connect a lightbulb, a motor, and a switch to a battery to make simple circuits. Eight-year-old Joell Adorno found connecting the wires frustrating, but overall he "loved" doing the various projects. He was able to understand most of the booklet, though a few words were too hard for him.
for ages 8 and older comes with a printed-circuit board, a plastic case and keyboard, and an infrared LED that can be assembled into a working remote control. (A list of codes is included for most makes of televisions, so the finished device can be appropriately programmed.) James Wang, 11, had "fun" putting the control together and thought the explanatory booklet was "just right."
Electronics Lab is based on a simplified breadboard. Aimed at ages 9 and up, the kit has transistors, capacitors, resistors, LEDs, and buzzers that can all be hooked up into a variety of circuits. Thirteen-year-old Mike Stelmaszczyk enjoyed doing most of the circuits, even though they required "some patience." Mike also skipped past any explanatory facts in the booklet because they looked "uninteresting" but said afterward that he'd like to do more projects of a similar nature.
Norman & Globus
Energy Wiz is targeted at ages 7 and above. Several types of a model electric car can be built with the kit, including a solar car and a supercapacitor car. Patti Stelmaszczyk, 11, found building the cars fun, but she wished they had been more challenging to build and skipped over some of the projects as "too boring." Patti also felt the booklet was too simple, but her mother believed Patti did learn something about solar cars.
ElectroWizard Inventions invites children to build an electric motor, a telegraph, and a radio. Billed for ages 8 and up, the kit didn't impress 13-year-old Ross Weisman, who felt the kit was too easy, partly because he'd covered similar topics in school. Ross did only one or two projects before growing bored.
ElectroWiz Electricity is another introductory kit for younger children, aged 5 through 10. Basic circuits can be built that turn on bulbs, ring buzzers, and spin motors. Seven-year-old Brianna Caraballo was "very excited" about the kit, and every time she got something to work, she "showed it off to everyone" around. While Brianna needed help understanding and pronouncing some of the harder words in the booklet, in general she found it easy to understand, with one exception: how to connect alligator clips to a switch. This also stumped her mother, who felt that an instruction was missing from the book. Afterward, Brianna said she wanted to do more of these kinds of projects.
PHOTO: NORMAN & GLOBUS
Do tabletop genetic engineering with this kit.
DNA Wizard is billed as being for ages 8 and up, but it is by far the most ambitious of all the kits and is probably best suited for a teen with close adult supervision. The kit allows children to build a model DNA double helix, then extract real DNA from fruit, and finally do actual genetic engineering by introducing a jellyfish gene into bacteria to make them glow.
Janine Wang, 13, took on the kit and successfully completed most of the projects but didn't succeed in creating glowing bacteria. She wanted to try again but noted there was only enough material for one attempt. Although Janine enjoyed the kit and loved playing with the model DNA, she felt that molecular biology involves "too much waiting" for results to persuade her to pursue more forays into the subject.