Endpoint: Defanged chemistry sets hurt the US

Edumacation 101

12 May 2008 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Chemistry sets were immensely popular from the 1930s well into the 1970s: once there was one in every US home with a child. But what about now?

Ivan Lerner/New York

THE IMPENDING mass retirement of the Baby Boomer generation has the petroleum and chemical industries rightfully worried - especially because there doesn't seem to be a rush from America's young to fill the ranks of these businesses.

There are many contrasting explanations as to why "the kids" are not interested in petrochemical employment, but I blame the decline and fall of the home chemistry set.

Not that I can remember anything concrete from what I might have learned from the two chemistry sets I had as a kid in the 1970s - I'd still have to look up why a magnesium strip burns so bright - but frantic airings out of the house and secret disposals of my disasters (sorry about that, G.I. Joe) taught me at least to have some respect for chemistry.

But in the 1980s, the home chemistry set became a pariah. "The decline of chemistry sets had nothing to do with lack of interest. Kids were and are as interested as ever. It was society that had changed," writes Robert Bruce Thompson in the preface of his recently published Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture(published in April by O'Reilly Media). "Manufacturers and retailers became concerned about lawsuits, and 'chemical' became a dirty word. Most chemistry sets were defanged to the point of uselessnessSome so-called chemistry sets nowadays are actually promoted as using 'no heat, no glass, and no chemicals,' as if that were something to be proud of. They might just as well promote them as 'no chemistry.'"

Thompson wrote this book after discovering that the teenager next door, who had expressed an interest in a career in science, had told him that at school, they studied only about 15 minutes of science a day.

"This book is for anyone, from responsible teenagers to adults, who wants to learn about chemistry by doing real, hands-on laboratory experiments," continues Thompson in his preface. He acknowledges, though, that the storebought chemistry set needed for his book does not exist anymore, and states, "the obvious answer is to build your own chemistry set and use it to do real chemistry."

Okay, kids, you now know what to ask for from Santa at Christmas!

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